Pouring their hearts into cocktail competition

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Pouring their hearts into cocktail competition

"Did you know that Tom Cruise actually took lessons from bartenders at a TGI Friday's branch in New York to play his role in the movie 'Cocktail?'"asks Philip Choi, TGI Friday's head of marketing. "That's what TGI is known for: brilliant bartenders."

TGI Friday's, the ubiquitous Western restaurant chain, has been holding its Bartender Championships since 1993 in Korea, to pick the best of the best among its tap jockeys. Preliminary contests at its 19 branches across the country whittled down the pool to eight finalists, six men and two women, from six branches. The "elite eight" then descended on the Ilsan, Gyeonggi province branch last Thursday to find out who would become the king of the cocktails.

The Ilsan branch is a rotunda, with a second-floor terrace surrounding the ground-floor cocktail lounge -- perfect for a bartending championship, allowing all the spectators a clear view.

At around 4:20 p.m., the championships began. The emcee announced the contestants, who ran up one-by-one while the theme from "Mission Impossible" blasted. The signs on the back of their jackets blazoned with their nicknames ("Mint," "Goodman" "Jacky"), as well as the slogan, "Shake, rattle and pour." There were screaming and cheering supporters (friends and colleagues from the entrants' branches) on the balcony, holding placards like, "Tough guy Atoo" and "Fighting Martin."

The championships were made up of compulsory and freestyle competitions, and were judged by five executives and TV celebrities such as Yoo Joon-sang and Park Sun-young.

The compulsories section was about creating the perfect drink: It included a pour test for the exact volume, making five basic cocktail drinks (including some alcohol-free) and opening wine bottles.

The freestyle section was about showmanship -- pulling off flashy aerial stunts and breakage-defying feats. Contestants were given 12 minutes each to show their stuff in each section, and points were deducted each time anyone dropped a bottle. The main categories for judging were flair, talent, service and cleaning.

Contestants showed their moves by juggling bottles and dancing to songs while mixing drinks. They seemed decidedly nervous, but tried to hide it. During a brief break, a contestant from the Gangnam branch, Park Sang-cheol (nickname "Knight"), 27, said, "I've been a bartender for three years now, but I'm going to remain one until I become the best."

Last year's champion, Kim Tae-joong, a.k.a. "Sky," also helped throw in a bottle or two during juggling acts and rang a bell from time to time to egg on the 100 people looking on.

Lee Sang-wha, a.k.a. "Minky," from the Yangjae branch, said, "I've been a bartender for only eight months, but I got here with the help of my colleagues."

The big winner of the festivities was none other than the Knight himself, Park Sang-cheol. He received $500, but more importantly the privilege of participating in the World Bartender Championships in San Francisco in early 2003 as the representative of Korea. Bottoms up!

by Choi Jie-ho

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