Annie Williams Pierce talks about the event, her win and what it means.
Competitions have become an important part of many bartenders’ careers. One of the biggest competitions is the United States Bartenders’ Guild’s (USBG) annual Most Imaginative Bartender event, presented by Bombay Sapphire Gin. The 2017 finals were held in England this August, and Annie Williams Pierce of Columbus, Ohio, was named the first-ever female winner after competing in four challenges. Showcasing the artistry that goes into making craft cocktails, Annie beat out 11 of North America’s top mixologists with her London x Tokyo cocktail.
As a result of her victory, Annie was named GQ Magazine’s Bartender in Residence. In this role she will collaborate on a series of cocktail videos, and act as an in-house cocktail and culture expert throughout the year for the magazine and additional Condé Nast publications.
Nightclub&Bar: The Bombay Sapphire bartender competition has the reputation of being challenging on numerous levels. Which challenge was the hardest for you to manage?
Annie Williams Pierce: The month leading up to London was nerve-racking. While we knew of two of the challenges, and were given ample time to prepare for them, the general element of “unknowing” was stressful and almost impossible to prepare for. However, once I landed in London, it was game time. No more anxiety or fear, just time to represent my city, my bar, and myself, I was there to leave it all on the table.
How significant do you think it is to be the first female winner?
Winning, in and of itself, has been overwhelming in the best possible way. But when I think of it in terms of “the first female” or also one of the first winners from a tertiary market, it almost means more. Women are such an integral part of our industry, and the fact that competitions and high-end programs are starting to reflect that is of the utmost importance.
You were required to create a number of drinks. Are they equally adaptable for bars and restaurants like the one where you work, or are they more specialized than most guests might like?
I think “adaptable” is the key word here, but I see it in terms of implementation. Could bars recreate any number of drinks produced for the competition? Yes. Even though some of them require a little backend production, the techniques used to create them are relatively commonplace in progressive bars around the country. As for the customers, I feel as though sometimes they get the short end of the stick: we don’t give them enough credit when it comes to what they might be willing to try!
The Columbus market isn't well known nationally as a cocktail hotbed. Is there something special there that helped you to win at this continent-wide competition?
Columbus is primed for continued growth. We have a small but ever-learning community of industry professionals. We are supportive and intensely accepting. And we are thirsty for knowledge, experiences, and yes – delicious cocktails.
Which of the cocktails you crafted was your favorite, and why?
I would say the cocktail that I created for the Artistry Challenge, as well as my final cocktail, London x Tokyo. For the Artistry Challenge, we each had to pick a piece from The Saatchi Gallery as the inspiration for a cocktail. We then had 15 minutes to create in a Top Chef-pantry-style challenge. I used raspberries, red currants, Martini Rubino vermouth, Bombay Sapphire and an apricot liqueur. It was dry, slightly fruity, and had wonderful rich notes from the vermouth. As for London x Tokyo, I love this drink. It was partially inspired by my honeymoon in Japan, so not only is it delicious, it is also deeply personal. Soft vegetal notes and a slight sweetness are balanced through the botanicals in Bombay Sapphire, resulting in a crisp and clean play on a 50/50 style Martini.
As the winner of the competition, you'll be tasked with creating educational and entertaining videos. That's a lot different from working bar shifts, so is there anything specific you have in mind for these videos?
My goal is to be able to cross the gap of customer/consumer to enabler. As a self-proclaimed nerd, I want to include not just the “how” but also the “why.” Having basic knowledge of builds, dilution, recipes, and simple techniques can make anyone an above average home bartender!
What was your favorite moment from the competition?
The whole experience was surreal. Twelve of us were in London, drinking at some of the best cocktail bars in the world, sharing work stories or best practices, and we would look around at each other and just be in awe of what we were there to do. The very last night we gathered at The Gherkin for the awards ceremony and final dinner, and there was a moment when all twelve competitors took a group picture. After, we turned inward, sort of like in a huddle, all with our arms around one another, and took a collective breath and realized that we had all survived the week, and that we were all there together. I think at that point, not to be completely cliché, but we were no longer competing. We had all just shared in an utterly incredible, personal, and emotional weeklong experience, that none of us will soon forget.