One chance, one encounter: the Nikka Perfect Serve
The contest is back after a break of two years and will once again see bartenders compete in their ability to turn service into a unique experience.
We tell you more with the help of Stanislav Vadrna, Nikka Brand Hospitality Advocate and soul of the Nikka Perfect Serve ever since its first edition in 2010.
Imagine walking into a bar after a very bad day, needing to unwind and take a breather. The bartender, however, hardly says hello, doesn't look you in the eye and just takes your order, serving you an assembly-line cocktail as if the contents of the glass were all that matters. By contrast, imagine a bartending approach where your presence in the room is more important than just your order and relevance is also given to the human exchange between the guest and the bartender. An approach that, besides the contents of the glass, also gives importance to the time the guest spends in the bar and makes it a unique, memorable experience.
This is the basic concept underlying the Nikka Perfect Serve, a bartending contest created by Stanislav Vadrna together with Nikka Whisky and La Maison du Whisky set to make a great comeback in 2022 after a two-year stop. It's a one-of-a-kind competition where the guiding principle is the Japanese philosophy of Ichi-go Ichi-e. This concept can be explained by using a literal translation – “one opportunity, one meeting” – or, as we did, by asking the passionate Nikka Brand Hospitality Advocate Stanislav Vadrna.
Each time someone walks up at the bar counter is a unique opportunity. “One chance, one encounter,” says Stanislav. "Treasure every encounter, for each one is unique and can never recur. And always with unconditional love, which is the key to the universal spirit of true hospitality." The true essence of hospitality is to embrace the concept of total communication, allowing other people's humanity to reach out to ours and striving to anticipate our guests' needs.
Let's take a step back and take a closer look at the concept of Ichi-go Ichi-e, which Stanislav came across first in 2005 and then in 2006, after a meeting in person with his Japanese master bartender mentor Kazuo Uyeda – the owner of Tender Bar in Ginza, the heart of Tokyo's fashionable district, and the first to apply this concept to bartending.
The term Ichi-go Ichi-e dates back to the 16th century. It can be traced back to tea master and Buddhist monk Sen No Rikyu and was then codified by his apprentice Yamanoue Soji. The Japanese tea ceremony – called Chado – is one of the world's best-known traditional Zen arts and is connected to the concepts of harmony, respect, purity and tranquility. The written instructions left by Yamanoue Soji recommend showing guests the proper respect "as though it were a meeting that could only occur once in a lifetime." In Sen No Rikyu's time it was customary for the master and his guests to already know one another and meet regularly. Yet the basic principle underlying the tea ceremony is that one day's meeting can never be repeated exactly and is therefore a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.
The same concept underlies the Nikka Perfect Serve. “We only have this one moment to share, so we need to stay present,” continues Stanislav Vadrna. The competition is about “creating and sharing practices that elevate the customer experience – the customer being a valued guest, not merely a consumer – and developing hospitality-oriented hearts, minds and bodies.” The key point is to serve people, not one’s own bartender ego.
The Nikka Perfect Serve is not just a contest for the best cocktail but for the most Hospitable Bartender, and what makes for a hospitable bartender is the ability to listen to whoever is standing on other side of the counter, ask the right questions, understand and anticipate their needs.
As in previous years, the Nikka Perfect Serve is also about another key Japanese hospitality-related concept called omakase – literally, "I'll leave it to you", meaning the guest leaves it up to the bartender to select and serve a cocktail. During the contest, three judges play the role of indecisive guests, allowing contenders to demonstrate their empathy and listening skills. For fifteen minutes - the time allowed for the test - the bartender must be completely focused and relaxed, as they have been given the guest's full trust. The crucial point is to ask questions: the first one, according to Stanislav, should always be "How may I help you?". A common danger is a distorted, typically Western form of omakase, where the bartender believes they know what is best for their guest and may even patronizingly impart information about the drink as if they were teachers rather than passionate friends. It doesn't work that way, if you don't ask questions you'll never get the desired result. Stanislav takes as an example a guest who is a golf enthusiast. How much will their drinking experience improve if they find in their cocktail an ice cube in the shape of a golf ball made especially for them?
Omakase is not only about preparing bespoke drinks, it expresses a deeper philosophy: the art of anticipating other people's needs helps us understand that there are no "other people", we are all one. Muhinshu, meaning ‘no guest, no host’ – there is no distinction between guest and host because one's own humanity is all that matters. The instant when a connection is created between human beings is a blank space where we can welcome and enjoy the moment. Respect, a key element in this as in any exchange, must be mutual and also requires guests to be aware of their own role and focus on the moment the better to appreciate the bartender's work. Such a deep sharing has a domino effect, because people invariably go home taking some of the empathy they enjoyed with them. “We are not in the drinks business,” says Stanislav, “we are in the people business,” and that makes an enormous difference.
Few brands could stress these concepts as well as Nikka Whisky, whose very history is about the importance of personal exchange. After all, how could Nikka founder and father of Japanese whisky Masataka Taketsuru, once arrived in Scotland and alone in a foreign country, have acquired the secrets of the art of distillation if not by using his human skills? Curiosity, empathy, respect for other people's work – Nikka really embodies a story of human beings.
After all, the Nikka Perfect Serve is not just a regular contest. The judges don't just look for uniqueness, brand knowledge and mixology skills, they also – and chiefly – look for the deepest essence of hospitality. Contestants must focus on the guest's wishes as opposed to their own ego and should also have fun, using the contest as an opportunity to take time to think about their profession, get to know each other and improve as human beings.
For this year's Nikka Perfect Serve the contestants will have fifteen minutes to prepare two cocktails, improvising according to the needs of two of the judges. The third judge will order a whisky. The bartender will need to ask questions to find out which whisky the guest would like to have between Yoichi and Miyagikyo and how they would like it served. The bartender will then propose their idea of whisky serve and ask the guest if they’re happy with it.
The Italian finals will take place on 24 October in Milan. For the first time in the history of Nikka Perfect Serve, the Global finals will take place in Naples, at the end of November. Bartender registration for Italy closes on 21 September.