Bartender Ken Kodys left Colorado on September 3 for the 42Below Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand with one mission... to bring a third title back home. The bartending competition is our craft's version of the Olympics, in which 21 of the world's best bartenders representing six countries (and one all-star team comprised of past competitors) come together to compete in a weeklong challenge, with national pride at stake.
Team USA (aka Kodys, Steve Schneider and Beckaly Franks) dominated the competition from the beginning, winning the first two challenges and leading in points all week long. And after six days of competitions, seminars, parties, adventures and a whole lot of drinking, Team USA beat out second-place New Zealand and third-place Great Britain to emerge victorious and claim the 2012 42Below Cocktail World Cup.
Last week I finally caught up with Kodys to talk about the experience.
Sean Kenyon: Congrats on Winning the CWC! Before we get into the competition, tell us about your teammates.
Ken Kodys: My teammates were fantastic to work with. Steve Schneider from Employees Only in New York City is a special dude. He is one of, if not the best, all-around bartenders I have ever met. I respect his bar so much and it is one of my favorite bars in the country. His skills range from speed bartender to accurate free pourer; he's an amazing cocktail architect and just an interesting character who is always going 100 miles an hour and giving life all that he has.
My other teammate was Beckaly Franks of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon; she was our house mom and team leader. I would say that Beckaly brought a level of energy and creativity that charged our team for the competitions and the week in general. They were both also very level-headed, and we work very well as a team once we figured each other's styles out.
The first night we were in Queenstom we actually got into an argument and I think it really helped us; at that point we had three very big personalities all looking to obtain that alpha status. But I think we squashed it and ended up respecting each other as all being parts of team USA rather than us having one star. In the end, I think that was a huge part of us winning: The judges saw our teamwork and how well we worked together. Can you take us through the process of the competition day by day? Day 1: After a series of flights around the world, our bags were taken from us and we were taken instantly from the airport to the second-largest bungee jump in the world, 132 meters or 433 feet (check out Nevis bungee on youtube... terrifying!). Next we went to a very traditional Maori performance and greeting dinner; it was really nice to get to know the other competitors. I got along really well with the guys from London and New Zealand, as well as some of the team from Scotland. It lasted a few hours and then we had the night off, and our team practiced our cocktails for the two rounds that we did know details for. (We were competing in two contests that we could plan for in advance and two secretive comps for which we had no details.
Day 2: Two competitions, and the morning started off with us taking a helicopter ride to the top of a mountain in the Remarkable Range and competing in an Iron Chef -style comp, where my team made a 42Below Fejoia bottled Mai Tai. It was served like bottle service to the judges in a bottle that had originally been an ingredient, a local lemon lime soda bottle. We ended up winning this comp after I had a three-piece plastic shaker explode all over me and we recovered to still stay within the seven-minute time limit. Steve and I came up with a method of making syrup on the fly where we actually muddled a sugar cube into half of a blood orange, combining the sweet with the juice in its own vessel. It worked really well for being on top of a mountain with no extra tools.
The second competition was also on day 2, and it was the twenty-first century Punch Challenge. Beckaly had been assigned by our team to design this recipe and routine. The competition is just as much about performance as it is about the taste of the cocktail, and Beckaly combined our patriotic theme with a military concept and we did a call-and-response style drill sergeant routine where we had an audio track made barking orders at us and we responded with things like, "Sir, Yes, Sir" and "2 oz of 42 below pure, Sir." It was a huge success mixed with our punch, which was made up of a combination of ingredients that had been taken from each of our national winning cocktails, it was a mix of 42Below pure, Sauvignon blanc, honey syrup, Krug Champagne and oleo-saccharum, and it was served in a huge ice block with a U.S. flag etched into it. I think this was the moment that the other teams realized that we were going to raise the bar of the competition. We ended up winning that competition as well. I think that we were starting to get excited, but we also knew that the first three comps combined only made up 15 percent of the total score and the final comp was 85 percent, so we were not too excited.
Day 3: We got to take an amazing jet boat ride up a river canyon; it was a lot of fun and scared the crap out of some people because the drivers were trained stunt drivers who constantly came within a few inches of rock walls, beaching the boats and spinning the boats in 360 degree turns. We then had a cocktail summit, or seminar, with two of the judges: Jacob Briars and John Lermayer. They went over the history and relevance of cocktail competitions, as well as how to win and best prepare yourself. It was a really nice insight into what the judges look for, especially in that competition. The rest of the day was to train for the final event and source our products.
Day 4: We had the morning off to do what we wanted and get ingredients for the final event, and then we got ready for the third competition, which was held in an old stone barn on a winery. It involved making the best martini using essential oils made by a local couple who distilled eucalyptus oil for us in the barn. We chose to make a classic stirred martini 4:1 with a lemon twist and simple spray the essential oils on the wrist of the judges, unlike the other teams that all put the oils in the cocktails. The oils that we sprayed were orange peel and Kawa Kawa. Unfortunately, this was the only competition in which we did not place. The night was capped with a nice dinner where they announced that Australia had won, and then we went on a bar crawl of the cocktail bars of Queenstown.
Day 5: We traveled to Auckland. Once in Auckland we had a seminar with Tony Conigliaro, in which my mind was officially blown to pieces. Tony is one of the most intelligent and passionate minds I have ever had the pleasure of listening too. He is a drink professional from London and has a location named the Drink Factory in which they strictly dissect flavors for cocktail use. Tony was actually sued at one point by Chanel for recreating Chanel Number 5 and making it into a champagne cocktail. Also notable, he has recreated different terroirs of wine regions and turned them into spirits. I still feel dumb after listening to Tony. After Tony's talk, we worked with Naren Young on our cocktail; he gave some fantastic advice and we kept tweaking our recipe and adding and subtracting ingredients to simplify yet bulk up our drink.
Day 6 was the day of the final event and we rushed around to get all of our ingredients made and tools and glassware sourced, as well as practice our routine. Very nerve- wracking, knowing you will be not only be preforming a seven-minute Broadway-style play but also be required to make six cocktails in that performance that are balanced and done right. We also led in points at that point, so we got to choose when we performed in the order and we choose second to last, lucky number 6. We got everything dialed and went to the old air hanger to check out the stage.
In the end we nailed the drink and the performance, which was based around the Incredible Hulk. Steve was Bruce Banner and he was looking for a cure aka, Formula 42. As he got frustrated and angry he fell to the floor and I rose up and pumped up the crowd as the Hulk. Beckaly then calmed me down and we made the cocktails. In the end it works and I fall back and Steve appears in ripped up cloths with the cure!
What was your challenge for the finals? Doing something different, yet keeping it simple. Seven minutes goes by really fast ,and mixing a performance in there just makes it harder to make six cocktails of this level in that amount of time. We tried to prep as much as possible and keep to the plan as far as who did what. We also tied in everything that we learned throughout the week so the judges realized how much we respected being there and the opportunity that it had been.
What was your favorite moment of the event?
The day after the finals we had a group barbecue at a place called the Tasting Shed. DJ Miami Vices aka John Lermayer killed it after we ate, and everyone was relaxed and relieved. It was a big party with a lot of new friends; we played cricket, jenga and other lawn games while Lermayer led sing-alongs and a dance party. It was really a surreal experience to be singing with people from all over the world while we passed around bottles of wine and vodka. I kept as sober as possible all week, but no matter what you did, someone was handing you a bottle. It was a blast and done really well by 42Below; I really respect their company and the people they hire to be ambassadors from around the globe. I heard that on the traditional bungee jump, you frayed the bungee cord, is that true? Not completely. When I jumped i was .5 kg away from the weight limit and I was already terrified, but once I was pulled up and safe they showed me the steel stopper which is what catches when you begin to stretch and the bolts are loosened and the springs are popping out. It was a little nerve-wracking until I found out after the second competition that I had won another buggy jump at the end of the week. I jumped again and I was fine again. How many times has the US won? What country has won the most? Three countries were tied with 2 wins when the week started... When the week ended USA was the first country with 3 wins!!!
What does the win mean for you? It was a really proud moment, I mean how many people can say that they competed as "Team USA" in anything? To win for our country was just amazing. I don't think that it means that I am one of the best bartenders in the world, but it does show that i was part of a team that won three out of four comps on a world scale. That makes me proud and I think it made me a better bartender. I have been competing in cocktail contests for about four years and to win a national and international competition is so nice after a lot of hard work. I think a lot of people might laugh at bartending competitions, thinking of flair and not understanding all the prep that goes into them and the nerves they induce for weeks -- but it is a really great way to learn and experiment while having a great hobby. I go into them hoping to learn as much as possible and push myself to come up with the best cocktail I can and by the end I have so much invested that I really want to win and in this one I did and it felt great!!!
What's next for you and your career? What opportunities does this open up for you? It opens so many doors,. I have already had offers to work in several different countries, including ownership in a bar in Australia. I don't really believe that aspect of it,but i love my job right now at Breckenridge and Wynkoop Brewery. I am taking from 42Below CWC the knowledge that I do not know as much as i need to know to be the top tier professional that I want to be. I want to continue to work at my job in Denver and continue to learn as much as possible to be able to pass it along to others. I love teaching bar skills and ideas to others. I don't think that there are enough skilled bartenders for the amount of bars that do high-end cocktails, so I really want to start some classes that are not like bartender school but cocktail- oriented bar classes.
I have already started putting together about eight or nine different courses and workshops for people who want to learn and can't find the direction. I think it is getting better online, but if you want to learn you need a teacher with hands-on advice. That was one of the major reasons I started with Breck/Wynkoop a few months ago; they have a passion to expand their company knowledge to become as well rounded as possible, and I love that kind of thinking. Eventually some years down the road I will open my own bar and I will take everything I learn over the years and give it my best try. I know what I want to do, the tricky part is the get the right teammates and location. When the time is right, it will come.
Look for "The One Gun Hat Room" opening in a neighborhood near you...
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.