I was reminded again of just how good the New Zealand bar scene can be when I attended the national final of the Diageo World Class bartending competition.
Six of the best bartenders in the country faced off for the national title and the chance to represent New Zealand at the World Class grand final at various points around the Mediterranean next month.
What impressed me most was the quality of the drinks on offer. Usually, you get one entrant who is clearly ahead of the pack, but these six guys from Auckland, Wellington, Wanaka and Queenstown were so close that you'd hardly get a cigarette paper between them.
From cocktails that offered a choice of spray-on finishes to one that involved meringues, garlic, gold flake and saffron popcorn, there wasn't a dud to be found. I was judging a section and the deliberations were long and involved, such was the quality of the competition.
It wasn't just down to making a nice drink either. Other rounds included food-matching, which tied in nicely with this country's unhealthy obsession with chefs and cookery, but the real challenge was when the bartenders had to present their drinks to 100 thirsty guests for the People's Choice vote.
Mixing drinks and delivering a spiel at the same time is at the very heart of bartending, so you'd imagine these guys would be very good at it.
All in all it was a great night, although I must admit that I'm not always convinced by bartending competitions. Too often they are simply ways of pushing a particular spirit brand and have little real meaning.
There's also a risk that it all gets a little stale. We're blessed here in New Zealand with the number of genuinely brilliant bartenders we have, but there is always a danger that you end up with the same faces winning everything. That can happen, but then good bartenders will rise to the top and we should really be sitting back and relishing the fact that we have such innovative custodians of the back shelf to serve us.
The World Class competition, though, was a real test and it was intriguing to watch Auckland bartending heavyweights Cam Timmins, Barney Toy and James Goggin facing off against the best of the rest of the country, in the persons of Mikey Ball, Jason Clark and Shannon Sanderson. Clark took out the title after a frenzied night of mixing, shaking and bedazzling.
His Marilyn Monroe-inspired concoction involved gin, whisky, gold spray, popcorn and mini meringues and was like a meal in a glass. Intricate and beautiful, it was a deserved winner in a competition where the difference between victory and defeat was wafer-thin.
For me, though, Fukuko's Cam Timmins made an exquisite gin and sauvignon blanc-based cocktail that was a thing of rare beauty and a reminder that, whatever else might be happening, we can always get a world-class drink in Auckland.