DINER: Ben de Champlain of Boneta Takes Home Scout’s “Bartender Of The Year” Title
by Andrew Morrison | In what I think went down as the most memorable and exciting bartending competition that Vancouver has ever witnessed before, Boneta barman Ben de Champlain defeated The Keefer Bar’s Dani Tatarin yesterday to win the title of Scout Magazine’s 2012 Bartender of the Year. And boy is my palate still tired. All told, local titans of the trade Mark Brand (Save On Meats, etc), Steve Da Cruz (Tacofino), Ron Oliver (The Diamond) and David Greig (L’Abattoir) and I must have judged some 60+ drinks on the say, which made for some good times indeed and bellies full of drunk bread. It was an incredible turnout – standing room only – and a superb thing to see our local bartending community out as one to celebrate their very best talents.
From the outset, this tournament was designed by bartenders for bartenders. It actually began a month ago on June 4th, when over 30 of BC’s top barkeeps wrote a 50 question entrance examination (just like school). One exam was given at the Diamond in Gastown, and another was served to a group of keeners across the Strait in Victoria. It was not at all an easy test. It was specifically designed to favour booze nerds of the most bizarrely devoted kind. Of course there were some sneaky questions among the serious ones. These ranged from essential intel, like “What time does Gyoza King close on a Saturday night?” to totally obtuse poseurs of urban legend, such as “In which Victoria neighbourhood did a cougar once famously break into a basement suite?”
A couple of weeks later we announced the 16 bartenders with the highest marks. They were, from 16th to 1st: David Bain of Diva at the Met and Josh Boudreau of Victoria’s Veneto (tie); Ryan Malcolm of Victoria’s Sauce; Alistair Bell of Revel Room; Dani Tatarin of The Keefer Bar; “JS” of Tableau Bar Bistro; Jay Browne of Calabash; the irrepressible “H” of Jules Bistro; Brendan Brewster of Victoria’s Fiamo & Svelte; Brooke Levie of The Marina in Victoria; Jon Smollensky of Hawksworth; Marc Smolinski of Max’s; Gez McAlpine of The Keefer Bar; Josh Pape of The Diamond; Ben de Champlain of Boneta; Simon Kaulback of Boneta; and Shaun Layton of L’Abattoir. A tough field, indeed.
Fast-forward to yesterday, where the 16 gathered to first blind test 5 spirits and make an original cocktail which was judged blind (we were sequestered in the back room behind a curtain). Some of the drinks in the latter challenge were outstanding. Others, not so much. Still, the level of commitment from the competitors was made very plain. Once the scores were added up, we had to eliminated the lower half of the field. Those who remained were Josh Pape, J.S., Marc Smolinski, Simon Kaulback, Brooke Levie, Dani Tatarin, Alistair Bell, and Ben de Champlain.
Now we entered the most gruelling part of the competition: a no hold’s barred series of timed, head to head smackdowns. In twos, the eight bartenders were presented with chits of four drinks to replicate a real world scenario. Some of the these were familiar (eg. Mint Julep, Sazerac), while others were less common (eg. Mary Pickford, Clover Club). Points were awarded for style, speed, and accuracy/taste. When the smoke cleared, we were left with Pape, Tatarin, de Champlain and Bell.
In the next round, Tatarin took out Pape by a close margin and de Champlain laid waste to Bell, setting up a final that was more riveting than any competition I’ve ever been involved in before (it made the Black Box challenge at the Canadian Culinary Championships look like a bag of dead dolphins). Dani was the first to finish, which gave her some points, but she dropped the ball on a couple of drinks, letting the turtle thwart the hare. Ben took his time to both entertain (in his own inimitable way) and concentrate, and ended up with a series of cocktails that swayed every one of the judges. It was a hard won thing, and he owned it like a fucking boss.
In addition to winning our 2012 Bartender of the Year title and a framed award designed by Glasfurd & Walker, de Champlain took home a holiday package put together by our good friends at Tourism Kelowna. It includes two nights accommodation at the very gorgeous Clarance House, two tickets to the always amazing Okanagan Feast of Fields, and a round of golf for two (with power cart) at the Graham Cooke-designed Harvest Golf Club. He also gets $600 cash, a lovely pair of sneakers from Alife, a whole bunch of glassware, and the respect of his peers and the city at large.
Everyone here at Scout would like to thank our amazing hosts and the staff at The Keefer Bar; the tireless tournament coordinators, David Greig and Keenan Hood; everyone on the Island who helped facilitate; all of the judges (you poor dears); and everyone who got their asses to Chinatown on a holiday to watch it all go down. I had the most fun I’d had in a while, and I’m already looking forward to next year.