Beluga Vodka Sends New York City Bartender Finalists on the Trip of a Lifetime to St. Petersburg

The July 11 competition took place in New York City. The July 11 competition took place in New York City.

Six bartender contestants. Six mysterious black boxes. Three esteemed spirits industry judges. And one hour to create an award-winning cocktail for Beluga vodka. In early July, Tales was fortunate enough to attend the Beluga Noble Signature Finals competition in New York City. Industry veterans Dale DeGroff, Brian Van Flandern, and James Menite had the difficult task of deciding which two of the six impressive bartenders from around the country would be making their way to St. Petersburg, Russia for the global finals this fall.

Brian Van Flandern, Dale DeGroff, and James Amite were the esteemed judges. Industry veterans Brian Van Flandern, Dale DeGroff, and James Menite were the esteemed judges at July's competition.

The competing bartenders were told come with a "noble" or "chic" inspiration. Anything that would add to the ambience of the drink, but not affect the flavor, was welcomed: garnishes, food pairings, music, even fresh flowers and herbs were brought by bartenders to enhance their final presentation. But perhaps most intriguing were the six mysterious black boxes that awaited each of the competing bartenders. Once the box's contents were revealed, they only had one hour to create a cocktail highlighting Beluga vodka’s unique tasting notes and intricate distillation process. With Beluga vodka best treated as a deliberate ingredient in a cocktail, not a casual afterthought, the bartenders had to balance showcasing the vodka while also incorporating some surprise ingredients.

Beluga Vodka's mysterious black boxes. Beluga Vodka's mysterious black boxes.

Chelan Finney of DUMBO’s Cecconi's said she came with a bit of musical inspiration — specifically, the aria "Song to the Moon" from the 1900 Czech opera "Rusalka." Finney said, "When I opened that mystery box, I was pleasantly surprised. I had so many options in front of me. There was citrus, there were liqueurs, there was ginger beer ... and there was vanilla. When I saw the ginger beer and the vanilla together, I thought, with the Beluga Transatlantic vodka, that is going to make a sick Buck!" With the aria playing in the background during the competition, she and her cocktail made quite the impact on the judges.

Chelan Finney plays her aria inspiration for the judges. Chelan Finney plays her aria inspiration for the judges.

The second winner, Craig J. Schiedlo of NYC’s Ousia, came in with Frank Sinatra on his mind. He knew ahead of time that he wanted to make a stirred cocktail in order to highlight the vodka, while also crafting something both elegant and beautiful: "I made whatever I had in the box work with the champagne and the creme de violette. I just let the cocktail come to life. That's where I thrive and am my best. Anything that would have been thrown my way, I would have made it into my idea.” Ol’ Blue Eyes would be proud.

Craig brought caviar and blank to pair with his cocktail. Craig J. Schiedlo brought caviar and shaved truffles to pair with his cocktail.

Three prestigious judges, also representing the Big Apple, didn’t have an easy task in front of them, but they did have plenty of experience. James Menite of Brooklyn, NY, is a bartender at The Palm Court inside the iconic Plaza Hotel. He noted, "I judge everything in New York these days." But what stood out with this particular challenge?

"I loved the black mystery box. It shows off people's creative talents and the inspiration they could do off-the-cuff,” said Menite. “It’s something that the Beluga Signature competition is looking for down the road if somebody’s going to be a brand ambassador for them; it makes them think on their feet."

While all six bartenders created exceptional cocktails, how did these two cocktails stand out from the crowd? Brian Van Flandern, a professional beverage consultant, said, "Quite frankly, both cocktails were extraordinarily different from each other." How so? “One had a fantastic flavor cycle. The other one had a great story and was extremely well-balanced. It was a very tight competition. Really well-played.”

The three judges debate. The three judges debate.

Dale DeGroff, a legendary bartender also representing New York, agreed. “You know, it illustrated how culinary this cocktail profession has become. I mean, there were California herbs — unique, unusual herbs. They’re so much more the ‘chefs’ of their bar these days. It’s very encouraging to see this.”

All three judges agreed the two winners truly showcased the flavor of the vodka and its underlying, subtle accents (Schiedlo's caviar and truffle pairing certainly didn’t hurt, either!) The two winners went on to receive personalized Beluga Gold Line bottles, bartender tools, ice stamps, patterns, and (most importantly) a trip to Saint Petersburg, Russia this fall.

The finishing touch. The finishing touch.

Once in Russia, the bartenders will be treated to a multitude of cultural programs, entertainment, precompetition challenges, and the final contest on September 8 at the grand Four Seasons Hotel. The winner will be crowned the Beluga Global Brand Ambassador, and will be taking that esteemed title on an all-expenses paid trip to Tales of the Cocktail in 2018. Their award-winning recipes are below. Nostrovia!

Chelan Finney’s Beluga Siren Song

  • 2 oz Beluga Transatlantic Racing vodka
  • 1/2 oz vanilla syrup
  • 3/4 oz lime juice
  • 1 grapefruit peel
  • 3 oz ginger beer
  • 1/2 oz sherry float

Craig J. Schiedlo’s The Beluga Way

  • 2 oz Beluga Allure vodka
  • 1 barspoon creme de violette
  • 1 barspoon simple syrup
  • 3/4 oz dry vermouth
  • 1 oz champagne
(Pair with shaved truffles and black caviar)

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