FINLANDIA VODKA CUP 2009 REVIEW - The Best Bartenders From Around the World Meet at the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland

The Finlandia Vodka Cup is an annual global drink contest where the best bartenders from around the world meet at the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland to showcase their talents and compete for the global trophy and the title  “ Finlandia Bartender of the Year”… while experiencing the Finnish way of life, and the pure natural origins of the  brand. During finals, competitors must create a new drink in three categories: Aperitif, Long Drink and Quick Mix. Points from all three categories, based on appearance, aroma and taste are then added up, and the bartender with the highest score wins the coveted title.   

I have been invited to share in the camaraderie, excitement and fun of the 11th Annual International Finlandia Vodka Cup 2009. The goals of the event are to continue the tradition of distilling fine vodka, to inspire and challenge the world of mixology, and to find the most talented bartender…not simply to find the best drink.  

January 31st
I make my way to Finnair’s Business Class Lounge (they share with American Airlines at JFK) to rendezvous with David Page, Finlandia’s PR Manager, my friend and fellow journalist Maryann Thigpen, Christine Misiura, the United States contender from the Disney Swan Hotel in Orlando, Jeff Schaus, the Canadian contender from The Metropolitan Grill in Calgary and TV host Kevin Brauch from Toronto, one of the judges. After getting to know each other, we board our Finnair flight to Helsinki and settle into our comfortable Business Class seats that recline to an extremely relaxing position. A glass of chilled champagne and warm canapés sets the mood for the gracious in-flight service and delicious meals that follows. I linger over my dinner of Finnish delicacies and excellent red and white wines. Half way into the flight I snuggle under the covers, and before I know it, breakfast is being served and the captain announces we will be landing in an hour. (Photo of in-flight service)

February 1st
Once in Helsinki we check into the  Hansaari Cultural Centre for an overnight stay and to connect with the “best-of-the-best bartenders”, journalists and Brown Forman distributors from:29 countries around the world: Bulgaria, Canada, Columbia, Cyprus, Dubai, El Salvador, Finland, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Iceland, Indonesia, India, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Malaysia, Panama, Poland, Puerto Rico, Romania, Russia, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States and Venezuela.

February 2nd
In the morning we fly up to Rovaniemi, Lapland at the Arctic Circle (the home of Santa Claus), from here we will travel two more hours by bus to our final destination …the small hamlet of Levi, where the Competition is held every year. We are a large group of 120 eclectic personalities who have traveled far to participate in three days of serious professional and physical challenges, in temperatures that may be as cold as 30 degrees below zero … in a land where the sun  doesn’t rise for  42 days in winter.

As we begin our drive through the isolated winter wonderland, a family of reindeer with huge antlers crosses the road; we all grab our cameras to capture the moment before they disappear into the forest. Icicles have turned the birch and fir trees that line the road into magical ice crusted sculptures; I do not see a house for miles; the simplicity and purity of life here is a sharp contrast to the city I left behind, as well as to life in Helsinki.

We check into the Sokos Hotel; there is time for a sauna just off the lobby. At 5:45 we meet and walk to the gondola which takes us to the restaurant at the top of the mountain for a competition briefing, press interviews and a welcome dinner. We begin to mingle and make new friends; I have my first taste of reindeer stew, sausage and steak; sample some of the drinks that won in past competitions, and chat with bartenders who tell me “we prefer Finlandia vodka because it is so pure and light, plus, when we use fresh ingredients, our drinks taste fresher, inspiring us to create new drinks; heavy vodkas on the other hand take over the taste of fresh ingredients”. (photos of first dinner and gondola)

Pekka Pellinen, winner of the Finlandia Cup 2001, has played an active role in developing Finnish cocktail culture. As the company’s Global Brand Champion Worldwide he is responsible for executing drink programs and events, including: The Finlandia Cup, The Midnight Sun Event, The European Finnishing School and the Taste Training Program. He tells me: “modern day vodkas use flavors to enhance not to hide; its all about care and control of the ingredients; an aperitif, poured to stimulate an appetite for food and conversation signifies what a bartender does as he enters a personal contact with a customer”.

February 3rd
The next morning we dress in layers as instructed, and then climb into special snow suits, insulated boots, gloves and hats that have been provided in everyone’s size. Chartered buses transport us into the forest to Sammu’s Tupa to compete in a series of fun and exhilarating Reindeer Man Olympics (temperatures are a cool 14 degrees below zero, not as cold as expected and dressed in my insulated clothes, it is quite wonderful ).We are divided into groups and rotate  activities that. include: lassoing the horns of a reindeer, pulling a sled filled with bales of hay, snow shoe races, ice fishing through a hole in the frozen river and a Sammu smudging ceremony. Lunch in one of the cabins, hot soup and crusty homemade bread, is a welcome treat after hours in the cold. Friendships continue to grow over dinner, an intimate celebration of good food and wine in front of a roaring fire. (photos of reindeer Olympics)

February 4th
The anticipated International Competition, the highlight of everyone’s visit, is scheduled to take place today from 4:00 to 5:30 in a five meter thick Snow Dome Igloo, built with blocks of ice cut from a nearby frozen river. The prepping begins at 2:30 when 29 bartenders, competing in three categories, receive the ingredients they have requested to use in their Aperitif and Long Drink entries; they have an hour to slice and dice in a heated cabin before they move into the frigid Snow Dome. ( photo of prepping)

When those of us not participating arrive at the Snow Dome around four, the competitors are standing behind two bars that form a semi circle around the parameter; signs identify who they are and where they come from. It is an amazing sight to enter the dome and see benches, round pedestal tables. a two tier dance floor and a 10 foot tall Finlandia Vodka bottle all carved out of ice. The competition begins; the pressure is intense; only seven minutes to prepare, pour and garnish the aperitifs; not easy in below zero temperatures; one of the bartenders has to cope with honey that freezes as she tries to squeeze it out of a bottle; the fingers of those from South America stiffen from the cold; it is difficult to carve the rind of a fruit. Drinks are taken away for the judges, a panel of respected spirits experts, to taste and rate. The seven minutes allocated to preparing, pouring and garnishing the Long Drink is no less stressful.  The last category, the Quick Mix is the most challenging; each has 10 minutes to pick from a basket of surprise ingredients, write down and hand in a recipe, and then five minutes to prep, shake and pour. Some fall short of their goal; others are proud of their masterpieces. (photos of bartenders at work, close up of drinks on table outside dome, photo with everyone watching)

When the judges tally the highest combined score from all three categories, the winner of The Finlandia Cup 2009 is Raditya Dimas (originally from Jakarta, now a bartender in Dubai) with 298 points out of a possible 312. The 2nd and 3rd place winners are Stephen Hinz from Germany and Ionel Aurel Palpau from Romania. At 8 P.M. we take the cable car back to the top of the mountain for the Award Ceremony and dinner. Everyone is in a festive and highly energized mood; it has been an amazing day! (photos of winners and all bartenders, award ceremony)   

February 5th
The Finnishing School
The Soul Shakers is a group of three zany guys from London who go around the world teaching and entertaining with bartending antics from the wacky world of mixology. Their mission is to pick up, borrow and create new ideas to share with the industry to make it a little better. They came here as judges, and today they are holding court at The Finnishing School with an advanced course in bartending ethics plus pointers and tricks of the trade. We taste several of their concoctions and learn to appreciate the different taste of a drink made with pure vodka and the freshest of ingredients. I never realized how much talent goes into creating a great drink. To quote Markku Raittinen, the company’s Global Brand Ambassador: “It takes skill, innovation and a deep understanding of the ingredients you are working with to create a great drink. A true classic is a drink that doesn’t take too long to prepare”…certainly as evidenced by the skills and artistry of all the bartenders. (photo of Soul Shakers holding court plus close up of structured drink)

Lighting the Finlandia Logo
When I think all the fun and games are over, we are bused back to Sammu Tupa; bundled up in our snowsuits, we slide down an embankment of snow onto the frozen river. The Finlandia Vodka Logo, three white reindeer against the midnight sun, has been reproduced on the ice in the form of 120 meters wide by 60 meters high drawing. Once again we are divided into nine teams; our task is to place, and then light, 1,500 votive candles is straight lines, approximately two feet apart, along the outline of the image. It takes teamwork and effort, but there is great camaraderie as we race to be the first team to complete our piece of the logo. The sight of the lit logo shimmering and glowing on the frozen river is breathtaking. I follow others who have sprawled out in the snow totally energized and purified by the experience. (photos of entire group, photos of lit logo)

After our farewell dinner, we are bused back to the snow dome; it has been turned into an ice disco. The vodka flows; the music gyrates, and I can hardly believe I am moving and grooving in my  less –than- flattering snow suit with wonderful new friends from all over the world. We take crazy photos of each other and drink hot chocolate mixed with mango vodka out of wooden cups. Someone grabs my arm and leads me out to witness the Northern Lights and the Aurora Borealis. As it swoops across the sky, I am overwhelmed with emotions that flow as freely as Finlandia’s hospitality. It is hard to imagine a world less calm and peaceful. The music vibrates through the silent night. What a wonderful new beginning. Thank you, David Page and Brown Forman, for welcoming me into this very special circle of Finlandia Vodka lovers, movers and shakers. I will always remember the passion, competitive spirit, determination and good sportsmanship we all shared … for me it was a special moment in time, in a sacred place few will ever reach. Only one may have come away with the title, but we are all came away winners. The Finnish language takes pride in more than 40 words for snow, but there is only one word for vodka….”Finlandia”. (photos of group dancing)

1 1/2 oz. Finlandia Cranberry Fusion vodka
1/2 oz. strawberry liqueur
1/2 oz.  passion fruit syrup
1 oz.  lemon juice
Method: Shake and strain into a martini glass
Garnish: Lemon slice and mint tip
2 oz. Finlandia Grapefruit Fusion
1 piece apple
1 oz. passion fruit syrup
1 oz. raspberry puree
1 oz. cranberry juice
Method: Muddle, shake and strain into a highball glass
Garnish: Red currant, grapefruit peel, and mint tip
3 oz. Finlandia Grapefruit Fusion
1 oz. sugar syrup
3 oz. Pomegranate juice
3 slices pink grapefruit
Winner: Jonathan Cowley, United Kingdom
Grapefruit Suomi Sour
1 ¾ oz. Finlandia Grapefruit Fusion
¾ oz. Fresh grapefruit juice
4 Lemon wedges
Method: Shake & Strain
Garnish: Egg white
Long Drink:
Winner: Stephen Hinz, Germany
Three Steps
¾ oz Finlandia Vodka Classic
¾ oz Grand Marnier
12 leafs mint
¾ oz. fresh lime juice
Fill Up Old Jamaica Ginger Beer
Garnish: citrus twist, mint, salt
Quick Mix:
Winner: Ioannis Samaras, Greece
1 ¾ oz. Finlandia Grapefruit Fusion
¼ oz. sugar syrup
Muddled cucumber
Splash of ginger ale
Garnish with a grapefruit peel
(photos of winning recipes)
1 1/2 oz. Finlandia Cranberry Fusion vodka
1/2 oz. strawberry liqueur
1/2 oz.  passion fruit syrup
1 oz.  lemon juice
Method: Shake and strain into a martini glass
Garnish: Lemon slice and mint tip

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