The Shout Magazine (New Zealand)

Wellingtonian takes out Highball NZ Bartender Of The Year competition

Organiser Phil Spector, winner Alex Vowles and and festival manager Riki Carter. Image credit: JoAnne Carr, Highball

A Wellingtonian bartender has won the Highball New Zealand Bartender of the Year competition over the weekend.

Alex Vowels from Tory’s Street’s Hawthorn Lounge took out the cocktail crown, with Dan Felsing from Crumpet in Wellington taking second place, and Andrea Marseglia from Piku in Hawke’s Bay coming in third.

The national bartending competition, which had been on hiatus since 2008, saw 28 competitors from Auckland to Wānaka, partake in a high intensity six-part tournament.

Bartenders were put through their paces with challenges such as a two-hour written exam, a blind whisky tasting and a cocktail-making round, inspired by lockdown, where bartenders made drinks with common ingredients found at home.

From there, 20 competitors were eventually whittled down to eight for the finals, where they made five cocktails in five minutes.

Alex Vowles, winner of Highball NZ Bartender of the Year, said the win was surreal after two days of gruelling, intensive competitive conditions.

Alex Vowles. Image credit: JoAnne Carr, Highball

“The hardest aspect was the waiting in the lead up to the challenges,” he says.

“I was nervous the entire time until the moment I was writing the exam; prepping ingredients; behind the bar; making a drink.

“Then, I wasn’t so nervous, because that’s what we do every day. I felt confident when I was up there – not that I would win, but that I’d do well.”

Riki Carter, Highball Manager and competition organiser, said the rebooted comp was a tremendous success, especially since it hadn’t taken place for a long time, and considering many of the competing bartenders in 2021 weren’t in the industry for the last one in 2008.

“All the bartenders had their strengths across the rounds – certain parts like the two-hour exam were extremely challenging,” he says.

“But there’s a lot of potential for them to grow, and now they have a learning experience from this, and can go and work on those things for next year’s comp.

“Competitions where they can showcase their hands on skills and knowledge are really important for their professional development.

“Compared to overseas, where bartending is seen as a legitimate profession, New Zealand bartenders don’t get many opportunities to compete regularly or get professional support from spirits companies, due to our population size and, geographically, being way down at the bottom of the world.”

For his prize, Vowles won a trip to Sydney Bar Week (18-21 Sept), where he will have the opportunity to hone his professional development with masterclasses and mingling with the best in the industry. He also wins a cash prize of $1,200 and $500 of Federal Merchant & Co. products.

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