Sweet redemption for new cocktail king

When a 22-year-old named Charlie Ainsbury won a bartending competition run by an industry magazine in 2007, a big future in competitive pouring seemed assured.

Seven long years later the Sydney cocktail maker has finally delivered on that promise, winning the Australian leg of the world's biggest cocktail-making contest in Sydney on Monday night and in the process becoming Australia's representative at next month's global final.

“To win something like this seven years later, in a way it's a bit of reassurance that I'm still pretty good at my job. It's kind of like full circle,” says Ainsbury, who was born in Sydney but grew up in Thailand, returning to Australia in 2001.

“It's the biggest competition in the world so (to win) is absolutely massive, I'm pretty chuffed.”

Ainsbury saw off a field of 283 entrants, who were whittled down to a shortlist of 25 and finally to five national finalists.

The 29-year-old – who until recently managed Sydney bar Eau de Vie – triumphed over a series of three drinkmaking challenges on Monday at Bondi's Icebergs bar, ahead of fellow Sydneysider Ben Blair (The Crossing) and a trio of Melburnians: Andy Griffiths (Rum Diaries), Jenna Hemsworth (Thomas Olive) and Oscar Eastman (1806).

His winning cocktail, called the Prize Fighter, was an unusual blend of Don Julio Blanco Tequila with fresh lemon juice, rock candy syrup, parsnip juice, lemon thyme, sesame oil and Australian Sparkling white wine.

As the winner of global spirits company Diageo Reserve's “World Class” national final, he will fly to Britain in late July to represent Australia in the prestigious global decider.

The competition will kick off at the Johnnie Walker distillery in Scotland before adjourning to London, which sits alongside New York as one of the spiritual homes of cocktail culture.

Ainsbury's success hasn't been for a lack of trying, although a few distractions along the way didn't help his cause.

“I entered (World Class) every year except the first time, and I never made it past the first round,” he says.

“For the past four years I've been managing bars and haven't had time to be as creative as I was when I was younger but recently when this competition came around, coincidentally I had quit my job and wanted to concentrate on being that creative bartender again.

“Taking that time off was certainly part of it, and maybe it was just that experience I'd accumulated along the way that made this the right time. It's 11 years now I've been bartending.”

Ainsbury has been working casually at Sydney bars including Bulletin Place, The Anchor and Ananas as he works towards opening his own bar, but admits that process will be now be disrupted by preparations for the World Class global final at the end of July.

“Everything is going to be focusing on the competition now but as soon as I get back from that I'll be straight on getting into my own bar. The way Sydney is at the moment, that could take anywhere between six and 12 months,” he says.

He'll also have to juggle a hefty travelling schedule – winning the national final has earned him trips to Guatemala, where he will visit the home of Ron Zacapa premium rum; to Kentucky, to visit the Bulleit bourbon distillery; and to Johnnie Walker in Scotland. Along the way he will learn mixing and distillation techniques he will use on a visit to the Bundaberg distillery in Queensland, where he will be handed the keys and permission to produce 100 bottles of his own take on the quintessential Australian rum.

Next month Ainsbury will be aiming to follow in the footsteps of fellow Sydneysider Tim Philips, who won the global World Class final in 2012 and subsequently opened his own bar, Bulletin Place in Circular Quay.

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