On Friday November 11, in the Speyside region of the Scottish Highlands, the culmination of six months of experimental collaboration between bartenders and craftsman from around the world reached its peak. Bartender and mixologist Nathan O’Neill, along with his creative partner sous-chef John Taube, both of New York’s NoMad Hotel, were crowned as the champions in Glenfiddich's competition for the World’s Most Experimental Bartender.
The final took place at Glenfiddich's independent, still family-owned distillery in Dufftown. Together with nine other finalists from around the world, O’Neill and Taube were treated to an immersive experience at the distillery, learning first-hand how to make the world’s most awarded single malt whisky from scratch with Glenfiddich's distillery craftsmen. They even had the exclusive opportunity of laying down a cask of their very own whisky (which will rest at the distillery for at least another 12 years before being opened, bottled and enjoyed) before sampling the Glenfiddich 'Experimental Series' – a new range of whiskies that each push the boundaries of traditional whisky making and flavors.
Following the immersive distillery experience, the collaborative pairs then had the chance to refine and pitch their experimental ideas to a panel for the ultimate opportunity of bringing their idea to life. This open-innovation competition is only in its first year, yet the level of competition was already incredibly strong. Each entry challenged the norm of food and drink consumption through collaborations with masters of fields outside the whisky world – including ceramics, art, cheese making, sound engineering, game creation, engineering and furniture design – to co-create inventive and forward-thinking drinking experiences.
The judging panel included Glenfiddich's malt master, Brian Kinsman, the director of prestige in the UK, Kirsten Grant Meikle, Glenfiddich's global brand ambassador, Struan Grant Ralph, the global brand director, Enda O'Sullivan, as well as ourselves.
O’Neill and Taube’s final winning entry took elements combined their professional passion and skills with experiences and elements gathered at the distillery to create a truly experimental collaboration. Taking a molecular, gastronomic approach, O’Neill created two whisky drinks that involved the sous-vide technique of vacuum cooking the liquid to then break down the whisky’s constituent flavors.
Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable whisky brands, Glenfiddich is still a family-owned business. Inspired by this, Taube created a complimentary dish that meditated on the food that Glenfiddich's founders and their ancestors would have eaten in the Scottish Highlands, slow-cooking venison (referencing the whisky’s logo of the stag) in soil taken from the local area around the distillery. The final presentation involved the pair using a cooking bowl that contained earth and wood from the local area and then setting it on fire to finish the cooking process.
O’Neill and Taube’s entry defined the essence of the competition: true experimental collaboration. "We’re friends anyway and quite close colleagues," explained Taube. "The thing is, I work with Nathan’s wife in the kitchen back at the NoMad and my girlfriend works with Nathan on the bar, so it’s a real partnership that just worked."
Maybe it’s New York, but both Taube and O’Neill talk in fast, rushed, impassioned sentences, each of them excitable and enthused in their own unique way. Throughout the competition O’Neill has a measure of quiet confidence about him. "Collaborating to create a dish that truly represents the heritage of this whisky inspired us to use flavors and techniques that let our experiments run wild," he explained during the official ceremonial photographs. "We re-imagined the food pairings of the Glenfiddich ancestors, and created a dish that transported guests back to the Scottish Highlands of previous generations."
"This is the incredible result of a six month process that attracted a high calibre of entries from around the world," explained Struan Grant Ralph, the global brand ambassador for Glenfiddich and one of a cohort of charismatic champions Glenfiddich employs to promote, inspire and educate people about the whisky. "We’ve been overawed by the level of creativity and experimentation. When the brief was set we wanted to push the boundaries and produce new and exciting drinking experiences, but the level of inventiveness was ambitious and ground-breaking."
For a long time, whisky has been surrounded with an air of secrecy and a presumption that you’d have to be an old man smoking a fat cigar to enjoy and appreciate it. However, with this global competition based on experimentation and maverick spirit, and Glenfiddich’s own Experimental Series of whiskies, Glenfiddich is experimenting with its own heritage. And when you break it down even further, just like O’Neill and Taube’s entry, what you’re seeing is a family-owned and globally renowned whisky label that’s open to challenging how people view whisky and how they can enjoy it.
For more on whisky and the experimental direction Glenfiddich is taking the brand, as well as cocktail and serve ideas, follow the ongoing story through #gfexperiments.