It’s one thing entering a cocktail competition when you know the spirits involved inside out. It’s quite a challenge when you only have really heard of the hero product in question. But for Andrea Dionori, head mixologist at Crazy Bear in London, the first UK baijiu competition, organised by Fenjiu, was also an opportunity to discover the style of drink as well as compete. Whatever his approach it worked as he was the stand out winner in the event. Here he explains his winning cocktail and what he has learnt about premium Chinese baijiu.
What better way to introduce baijiu to the UK bar scene but with a high profile cocktail competition organised by leading brand Fenjiu Baijiu and its distributors Cheng International. Here’s how Crazy Bear’s Andrea Dionori came out as the winner of the inaugural Fenjiu Baijiu Cocktail Competition 2019.
The theme of the first Fenjiu Baijiu Cocktail Competition was “The marriage of Chinese tradition and Western innovation”. So quite a statement of intent for the 10 finalists who were asked to compete in the recent finals held at the Connaught Bar. Their task was to create an original cocktail using Fenjiu 10 Years Old baijiu, a light style of baijiu. Points were awarded for taste, visual impact, aroma, personality, back-story, authenticity and theatre.
Probably harder still was having to impress a line up of judges that included leading bar figures. In no particular order they were: Brian Silva of Rules, Alessandro Palazzi of Dukes Hotel, Enrico Gonzato previously of Dandelyan and now of The Stratford, and Matt Harrison of Speciality Brands.
The winning Fenjiu cocktail was made by Andrea Dionori who dubbed it ‘The Golden Empire’ and it now becomes the Fenjiu baijiu signature cocktail for one year. As part of his prize Dionori receives an all-expenses-paid trip to China to the Fenjiu distillery as well as the opportunity to become the UK Fenjiu Ambassador for the next 12 months.
Second place in the competition was awarded to Kisa Yang from Annabel’s, and third Place went to Paolo Lazzarich from Soho House.
The other finalists in the inaugural Fenjiu Cocktail Competition were: Michele Agnese, The Art’s Club; Lukas Stafin, The Gibson; Adrian Forde-Beggs,Lyaness; Luigi Iorio, Rosewood; Leo Surovec, China Tang; Stefano Chila, Annabel’s; and Francesco Lombardi from Corinthia.
But there could only be one winner. Andrea Dionori looks back on his success.
Can you tell us about your career to date and how you got into hospitality?
I have worked for five years in the UK hospitality industry. I moved to the UK from my native Italy in 2014 and started work as a kitchen porter initially. Since then I have worked for two hotels, two casual restaurants, one fine dining restaurant, one club and two members clubs.
How did you start working in bars and training in cocktails?
I left the kitchen as I felt it wasn’t the place for me, but I learnt the approach to food and ingredients. Then I started to work polishing glasses and helping bartenders, and I immediately loved the vibe, creativity and freedom of the bar environment.
Why did you decide to enter the Fenjiu Baijiu Cocktail Competition?
I love challenges, and I took part because it was something new as I had never heard of Fenjiu. You never know what you can come up with when you are out of your comfort zone as you are left just with your own resources and you never know what to expect from yourself – that’s how you get to the next “yourself”.
How familiar were you with Baijiu before?
I had a first taste of Baijiu a few years ago when a waitress I used to work with brought some back from a trip to Beijing.
Why do you think Baijiu is such a good ingredient for cocktails?
Because it is such a wide category, flavour profiles differ massively from one Baijiu to another and it is such an open field to explore. I consider Fenjiu, which is a “Light aroma” Baijiu, as similar to wine and it goes particularly well in cocktails with wine-based modifiers such as vermouth and sherry. On the other end of the scale, “Sauce aroma” is another style of Baijiu which makes me think of working with fermented ingredients, such as fermented coffee or barley, or fermented juices such as beetroot, carrot, or even kombucha.
How did you approach and prepare for the competition?
I am a minimalist and I think about practicality, costing, accessibility and taste. I wanted to reach everyone with my Fenjiu cocktail and I wanted them to be able to make the cocktail too. So it was important to create something that everyone could be happy with, and then perhaps maybe to modify it to their own tastes, but to keep the essential soul and concept.
I wanted it to be possible for people to make it and share it with friends. Also, I absolutely love the background information about this intriguing spirit and the ingredients that go into it. Knowledge is key, as it is powerful and practical at the same time. Once you know the rules and the ingredients well, you can bend or break them to taste.
How did you find it competing against such illustrious peers in the competition?
I realised I was the kid of the bunch. Honestly, I had never competed with bartenders of this calibre before, and to be judged by such illustrious judges too was such an experience. Besides being the winner, it was really an amazing journey, I made some great friendships too.
Talk us through your winning cocktail…
Fenjiu 10 Years Old has characteristics I really like which are normally found in a brown spirit. I wanted to let the spirit shine and bring out these characteristics by using something we know a little more of on this side of the world – oak. The theme of the competition was “The marriage of Chinese Tradition and Western Innovation” so I limited myself to using only products from America or Europe.
Fenjiu 10 Years Old is creamy, and it has a massive body and floral nose, with a hint of coconut and pastries. It is fragile, so I didn’t want to shake it, as it needed to be gently mixed.
I first went for Cocchi Americano, which is a gentle but solid aperitif, and, due to the Gentian and Cassia botanicals involved, it is slightly creamy and not too sweet. So, with this I got the herbs and the body, it was a light martini, but I needed more body and some oak. For this I looked to sherry. I tried Palo Cortado, my favourite, Apostoles 30 Years Old, which is a dry and very nutty style of sherry and it was perfect to uplift the coconut I found in Fenjiu.
So far it was good and the ingredients were there, but they needed something else to bring them together and I also wanted something to bring out the fresh side of the spirit. From oak you generally get tannins, so I was exploring tropical woods and Palo Santo came up.
I went to a bar and they used it as a cordial. I decided to do the same, but in my own way, so I burnt it and infused it in hot water, adding a bit of sugar and citric acid. The Palo Santo is really impressive in terms of flavours, with eucalyptus, incense, sandalwood and smoke. No garnish really as there was a lot going on in the glass, but the serve is a burning stick of Palo Santo on the side as it is used in aromatherapy and it creates a nice ambience.
You have now won a trip to the Fenjiu distillery in China. What are you looking forward to most about that trip?
I am curious to see the entire production process. When you see, smell and taste a spirit at the distillery it is always an uplifting experience. And I will be looking for inspiration for the next step, because there is always a next step.
And you are also now the Fenjiu ambassador for the year. What will that entail?
Supporting the team at Cheng International, creating new cocktails and new serves. Also helping them to bond with Western culture, as we have a different approach to drinks – I feel like the bridge between the two. I want to promote Fenjiu because it is really excellent.
Talk us through the cocktail and drinks offer you have at Crazy Bear?
Quite a broad range at the moment. We are looking at changing a few things, especially the cocktails, so expect clarified milk punches, black carrot sodas, and a few other quirky things. The new list will be out soon and you are invited to try. Of course, “The Golden Empire” cocktail made with Fenjiu 10 Years Old will feature on the list!
What advice would you give anyone looking to work in the bar industry? What skills/ talents do you need most of?
Be humble, as there is always someone who has done or knows more than you. Be open and crave knowledge. Don’t be boring. Use your job to serve others and everyone will come to you because you will be able to help them in many ways. This industry is awesome because there is always something to discover.
What next for you in terms of competitions and career?
I thought that winning a competition or achieving a high position in a company would be a pacifier for me, instead I find myself craving for more and the journey has just started. I want to be out of my comfort zone as much as I can, so I can grow. I am really delighted to be the first to carry out the Fenjiu ambassador role because I like to talk to people and give them something remarkable to taste.
- World Baijiu Day takes place on August 9. To get involved and find out more go to: Twitter: @fenjiuG and @chenginternati1; Instagram: fenjiu_london; Facebook: @chenginternational and follow hashtags: #fenjiu, #WorldBaijiuDay, @worldbaijiuday.