The Bite Sussex Autumn food and drink festival closed in style last Sunday with the finals of the Sussex Surprise Cocktail Competition, writes Nick Mosley.
Sussex is renowned for its ever-growing wine industry but in parallel to that there has been a surge in new small batch distilleries over the past decade. Whilst the majority of Sussex-based distilleries have focussed on craft gin, in recent years vodkas, vermouths and even brandies are joining the line-up of local liquors.
Earlier this year, the Bite Sussex food festival team and Brighton’s Mixology Group joined forces to promote local distilleries through a virtual cocktail competition. With the doors to the hospitality industry firmly closed earlier this year it was an opportunity for local bartenders to not only show their creativity but also engage with local producers.
Thirty boxes of ‘mystery’ ingredients were distributed to bartenders across the county featuring Brighton Gin, Bolney Gin, Brookstead Gin, Madame Jennifer Distillery and Slake Spirits, alongside MDTEA, Redroaster coffee and Wobblegate Orchard apple juice. Bartenders were then challenged to come up with up to three cocktails featuring the products and, in turn, celebrating Sussex. Out of over 50 cocktails submitted for preliminary judging, five finalists were chosen including Bethany Pogson of Etch by Steven Edwards, Thea Cantelli from Lucky Khao, Harry Roper of The Whiskey Rooms, Alex Preston of Isaac At and Rimantas Poska from Pitch by Kenny Tutt.
The grand finals were held on Sunday 19 September at Merkaba in Jubilee Street. Following tough competition, Thea Cantelli from Lucky Khao on St James Street swooped the winners cup.
“When I got the box I was like a kid in a candy shop”, said Thea. “There were so many amazing ingredients. I tried everything – purely for research purposes, of course – and started playing around with what could go together. I love using local ingredients and layering flavours so I wanted to see how many local products I could include while still having a balanced, well rounded drink”.
Thea’s winning cocktail was a twist on a gin sour featuring Fitz English sparkling wine, Brookstead Gin, Slake Spirits’ Bacchus Wild Elixir gin-based aperitif and Wobblegate Orchards’ apple juice.
“I love English fizz so knew 100% I would use that”, said Thea. “I love using gin in sours so wanted to see if two of my favourite things could work together and they totally did. The Brooksteed Gin had the perfect subtlety to pair with the gorgeous Slake Wild Elixir and a bit of violet syrup brought the summer sweetness. For the sour element, I wanted to add our Lucky Khao Thai twist to the sour so infused lime with lime leaves and finished it off with a viola frozen in a half sphere ice cube and some edible violas on the top”
Featured distillers and producers joined the judging panel on the night.
“We had a tough but pleasurable task”, said Tom Martin-Wells of Slake Spirits. “The standard was incredibly high across the board. Thea's exquisite presentation was a sight to behold. The layers of flavour that she delivered, particularly the delicate chalky parma violet-like aftertaste demonstrated a level of mastery that just pipped it for me”.
Fellow judge, Tom Stephens from Wobblegate Orchards agreed.
“The competition was extremely well fought and close”, said Tom. “The level of young talent in Sussex hospitality is obvious. Thea’s entry showed great innovation, craftsmanship and passion; it was a sight to behold and extremely delicious”.
Despite her cocktail and presentation thoroughly impressing the judging panel, Thea was nervous about the competition.
“Gosh, I was unbelievably nervous”, said Thea. “Although after the presentation I felt great, such a buzz - it was so much fun!”
“The other competitors were excellent and I really didn't expect to win as they all created such beautiful, delicious looking cocktails. I will definitely be popping down to each of their bars to grab a cocktail”.
“I am very happy to be the Sussex cocktail champion for 2021. It feels kind of surreal - I have a trophy! I'm looking forward to trying lots of new local products and creating some more yummy drinks”.