07/25/2012 07:15 am ET | Updated Sep 24, 2012

Rio, On The Rocks: At The World Class Global Final Bartending Extravaganza

Depending on who you ask, I traveled to Rio de Janeiro a couple of weeks ago to witness what was either the biggest and best bartending competition on the planet, or an elaborate PR gambit by a very large multinational company. And based on what I experienced, both sides would be right.

Diageo Reserve World Class, for those who haven't heard of it, is the Big Kahuna of contests for bartenders worldwide. A combination training program and competition now in its fourth year, this moveable feast for the liver had over 15,000 barmen and barwomen participating from every corner of the globe; among the 38 finalists who made it to Rio were mixologists from the United Arab Emirates, Trinidad, Vietnam and the Netherlands. So global is World Class's reach, in fact, that this is the first year the United States was invited to participate.

The eight judges included luminaries such as Dale DeGroff, who virtually pioneered the modern mixological movement from behind the bar at New York's Rainbow Room in the '80s; Gary Regan, one of the great spirits/cocktail writers of the last few decades; and Peter Dorelli, longtime head barman of the Savoy Hotel. The finalists were put through a series of challenges which required them, with limited time and supplies, to make cocktails ranging from "Retro-Chic" and "Tropical Splendor" to their own signature specials, with points added or taken away for style, presentation and bar-room banter as well as for the actual drinks.

Diageo, for those who haven't heard of it, is a company which cuts an enormous swath through the spirits industry. They own brands of all stripes, from the highly acclaimed special-occasion spirits to Saturday night frat party specials. Tanqueray, Lagavulin, J & B, Jose Cuervo, Bailey's, Hennessy, Captain Morgan,... the list is practically endless. Diageo bankrolls the World Class events, the highlights of which were filmed and will be aired as a TV special this fall.

Despite being the largest bartending competition in the world -- and not by a small margin, either -- Diageo Reserve World Class is still perceived by some as little more than a gigantic commercial for Diageo's Reserve line of high-end spirits ( Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Gold Label Scotch whiskies, Tanqueray Ten gin, Ketel One and Ciroc vodkas, Don Julio tequilas and Zacapa rum). The competitors could only work with Diageo Reserve spirits; one bartender, in fact, was penalized for using a non-Diageo Reserve brand during one challenge. So was this a legitimate competition or a promotional event? Well, yes and yes. Angus Winchester, Tanqueray Global Brand Ambassador (and Diageo employee) said, "Bartenders are not doing this because we're eccentric billionaires who need to keep our evenings busy. We are selling drinks. We are commercializing our art ourselves."

He elaborated: "[Diageo is] the world's biggest drinks company, so we have to be cleaner than clean, whiter than white. There has to be no suggestion of any elements of commercial bribery.... But we don't do this out of a sense of goodwill. This is a commercial thing."

From where I sit in the generally-objective seats, it's hard to fault the quality of the spirits featured in World Class. Every brand in the Diageo Reserve catalog (with the possible exception of Ciroc Vodka) is universally used -- and acclaimed -- by any just about any first-rate bartender. In a competition with no rules, most if not all of the Diageo Reserve line would show up pretty frequently anyway. So while not every company could get away with a proprietary competition, Diageo can.

And they used their money wisely. Bartending, especially in this day and age, is an art as much as cooking is. Bringing together so much talent to not only compete with each other but learn from each other is an extraordinary thing, no matter who's buying the plane tickets and hotel rooms. It's one thing for a bartender from America to see a bartender from, say, Korea on YouTube. It's another thing for them to watch each other up close. As Winchester put it, "It's so much more than a competition. It's about creating a sense of community. It's also about education. Crossing borders is useful." It's also exciting. Outside of cheesy '80s movies, you don't often see a crowd whooping and hollering when a bartender picks up a shaker, but it's true, everyone really did have his/her own style.

So, you might ask, how awesome were those challenge cocktails? Well, I didn't actually get to taste any of them -- the finalists only made them for the judges to taste. And I didn't get to see or hear too much of the challenges, either, as those of us without TV cameras and boom mics were shoved to the back of the challenge room, craning our necks to catch a glimpse of the action and straining our ears to hear the bartenders say things like, "I created a syrup using and then I decided to infuse the ...." The bartenders were miked for TV purposes; it stands to reason that next year they'll be miked for the benefit of those who have to report on their mixological creations as well.

Even if trying to watch the cocktail challenges proved to be a waste of time, there was still plenty of fun to be had, even if none of it involved going to the beach that lay just a few short yards from our hotels. For spirits geeks, there were seminars about everything from the retro-chic trend (which I attended) to "Luxury as a Force for Social Good" (I skipped that one). There were tastings, among them a sampling of (Diageo-owned) single-malt Scotches including Talisker 10-year-old and Lagavulin 16-year-old.

Last year's World Class winner, Japan's Manabu Ohtake, demonstrated his technique while making cocktails that attendees (the dozen of us who weren't attempting to cover one of the cocktail challenges, at least) were not only allowed but encouraged to taste. His shaking technique is much smoother and less flashy than that of most of his peers because, he said, hard shaking fractures the ice cubes and causes excessive melting, which waters down a cocktail too much. That's the kind of nugget any cocktail geek lives for.

And there were parties, most notably the nightly Mahiki afterparties, hosted by Ciroc Vodka (a/k/a the brand that famed spirits connoisseur Diddy promotes). While I missed out on the action firsthand, I heard all about the "Treasure Chests," actual casks filled with Ciroc and heaven knows what else, which up to eight people were encouraged to drink simultaneously using very long straws. More than one writer wound up in bed for a good chunk of the day after Mahiki-ing the night before, recovering from a deadly case of Ciroc-itis.

I also got to interview the eventual winner (spoiler alert, anyone who plans to watch the TV show!), Tim Philips of Australia. Well, I didn't get to interview him, really. I happened to be walking to the Copacabana Palace, the hotel in which most of the action took place, when the fellow I was walking with said, "Hey, Tim!" and introduced us. We did say hello to each other, and I think I wished him good luck as well, to which he said "Thanks." Hey, I've done plenty of interviews which were less interesting and less substantive, too. Of course, it was only later that I heard from judge Gary Regan about Philips' legend-in-the-making "Reincarnation Flip" cocktail, which literally had Gaz standing and applauding during the competition (the secret ingredient? A quail egg, from what I can tell).

The culmination of World Class Final took place on the swanky and tiny island of La Ilha Fiscal, complete with Brazilian drummers, Brazilian dancers, and Brazilian bartenders serving unlimited cocktails (though tragically for some of us, no food) and awards for the winners of each challenge as well as to Tim Philips. It was fairly impressive. For Tim, it means the beginning of a year of traveling all over the world on sort of a bartenders' cultural exchange; his own book; and his own bar, scheduled to open in a couple of months (the bar isn't bankrolled by Diageo, incidentally).

What I'll take away from the whole experience is the memory of the post-awards afterparty, when the cocktails weren't being judged and graded, and the bartenders had nobody to perform for. It was a chance to witness, with nothing at stake, just how passionate these people are about their craft, and how this event had brought them together. Contestants, judges, media, locals, and for a little while, even (Johnnie Walker Blue Label spokeswoman) Christina Hendricks gathered together in the bar of the Copacabana Palace.

For hours, there was nonstop laughing, joking, singing, dancing. The bartenders took over the place early on, showing off and mugging for each other with their most outrageous cocktail shakes, and mixing up anything they could find behind the bar for anyone who wanted it. As the the party wore on and the sun was getting ready to come up, supplies and bar tools were running low -- I remember a bemused-looking contestant mixing me a drink using unknown ingredients in a rocks glass, and straining it through a juicer. Nobody wanted the night to end. I finally staggered off to bed, but I'd like to think that a few hardy souls are still there, keeping the party alive.