Earlier this year, USBG and Diageo named Jessi Pollak the 2022 U.S. Bartender of the Year. From there, she headed to Sydney, Australia to compete with 15 of the best bartenders from around the world. We sat down with Jessi to find out how she got her start in the bar industry, what it was like to compete in last year’s USBG Presents World Class Sponsored By Diageo, and get some tips for next year’s competition.
Spirited: You’re in Minneapolis. Where, where did you get your start bartending and how did you just get into this world?
Jessi Pollak: I kind of fell into it a little bit. I actually worked in academia previously and it didn’t feel quite right. I knew I needed a change, was working in kind of a toxic office environment and I just knew it wasn’t for me. So I decided I would just, you know, kind of figure out my life and get a bartending job in the meantime. And like two weeks in I was like, “Oh, nope, this is for me. This is what I wanna do.” And so that was about eight years ago at this point in time. But yeah, it just felt right and I loved it. I like the physicality of it. I like that it’s different every day. Obviously I love making cocktails, but I just love hospitality too.
Spirited: Coming from a more academic environment into cocktails, do you find that experience helps you as a bartender?
JP: Yeah, honestly, something I think about a lot is, in my career, I think having experience with some of those administrative side of things and just being organized. I know some really talented bartenders who cannot for the life of them keep an organized calendar and that’s gonna be really hard to like actually progress in their careers in a meaningful way. And so I’ve found that those kind of skills, those administrative and organizational skills have helped me a lot and helped me grow my career.
Spirited: Sure, I’d guess bringing those organization skills makes it easier to organize for like a competition that has many pieces to it. But just to take a step back, this was your first time entering [USBG Presents World Class Sponsored By Diageo]. I know people who’ve been entering this competition for 5, 6, 7 years and they still haven’t gotten to this spot. What got you to enter? What, what made you want to do this?
JP: World Class can be really intimidating for people. I personally found it really intimidating if you know that it’s the best of the best. You see photos of the winners all over the internet and you know that you have to bring something really special for the game to win. So I was intimidated by it for sure.
I decided to enter after in 2019, one of the regional finals was in Minneapolis where I live, and I actually volunteered through the Bartender’s Guild, through the USBG, as like a bar back for the day. And I watched them compete and it looked fun, it looked exciting, but it also, seeing it in person, I had this kinda moment of, oh, I could do that. Mm-hmm. That’s just good bartending. Yeah. You know, it’s, oh wait, I’ve done this before.
So that’s when I kind of decided like, okay, I could do this. And then I ended up, not actually until this year, but this year I think a big part of my success, like you said, you know, as a first time competitor, I think a big part of my success was just going in with zero expectations. So not putting a ton of pressure on myself and also just having humility. I really expected this year to go in and just learn and have fun and then go back in subsequent years to hopefully win. But I wasn’t expecting it this year for sure. Definitely no one was more surprised than me.
Spirited: That’s great. What a wonderful surprise. So the competition has several stages. Can you talk me through the different stages how, what you did in the first place to get over that first initial hump? Because you know, it’s piece by piece, right? So how did you go from just stepping in to succeeding each round?
JP: Yeah. So, you know, it changes a little bit each year. Like this coming year, I can explain to you in a moment it’ll be a little bit different than it has been in the past. But, um, for 2021, there were, like you said, many stages of the competition. Something that appealed to me right away was the very first step of competition is online only. You’re not making any actual physical drinks that anyone’s going to taste. And what appealed to me though was that it was not just entering with one cocktail, but with a menu. And I love thinking about menus. I love piecing together menus and not just thinking of them as individual, a list of eight cocktails. It should be something cohesive, holistic that makes sense together. So that was to create a mindful menu that uses ingredients that are important to wherever you consider your home. That was the first step and that was really fun. I focused on, so Minnesota and the University of Minnesota actually are a massive force in the field of agriculture essentially. So a lot of the best apple varietals and corn varietals and a lot of other fruits have been produced in Minnesota originally at the university. So I used all those ingredients for those cocktails. And then, yeah, it was fun.
Then the next stage of the competition was a couple of cocktails that were using really limited ingredients, which is always fun cause it really challenges you when you don’t have that safety net of I could make whatever kind of weird syrup I want in my bar. It was really limited. And those are cocktails that you are submitting and then they’re actually like really talented judges recreating those cocktails exactly as you write them down in New York City and tasting everything and then judging them, which again is cool because you can’t fudge anything there. You know, they’re making the cocktails so you can’t kind of blur over any imperfections. They’re just gonna taste them and judge the cocktails.
Spirited: That’s got to be a difficult situation as well because it’s kind of like making peanut butter and jelly, right? If you’re giving someone that advice, you have to be so particular, and not skip a step, be like, “Oh, these are the best bartenders in this world, they’ll know what to do with this once I put that down.” But I assume that kind of background and being organized and being very particular that might have really helped in that process. Sorry, I interrupted in the middle of.
JP: No, no, no, that’s a hundred percent right though. Charles Jo Lee, who is a past global winner and a judge and he judged the past year, told me that literally if your recipe said to be hopping on your right foot four times while you face the cocktail, like that’s what they’re gonna do. So it’s yeah, that kind of specific stuff and really writing a really clear recipe is crucial to that stuff.
After that we had five regional finals or semifinals, so 50 competitors all day. The top 50 in the US and I competed in Chicago in the Midwest finals and that was fantastic. That was actually, oh my gosh. It was three different challenges with a speed round, a couple of cocktail challenges, and then they chose three winners from each region and they moved on to be the top 15 for the country and we competed in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nashville’s wild. I’ve never been before. It was crazy.
Spirited: I bet. I’ve never been either, but it seems like a really cool city. Very different from anywhere I’ve ever spent my time in. So how is the competition going to be different this year?
JP: I think World Class and the United States Bartenders Guild are trying to be really cognizant of the fact that this takes people’s time and time is worthwhile. Time is labor, you know, time is money essentially. So instead of doing two different rounds of in person events, which means, you know, you’re traveling to two different cities, which is great, but also you’re losing out on the ability to work and just for a lot of people that’s not accessible. So I think they’re trying to make things a little more accessible this year as far as time and transportation goes. So instead of regional challenges and then nationals being separate in two different cities at separate times, it’s all gonna be wrapped up together. So we’re gonna do the top 30 competitors in the US in Austin, Texas, and it’s going to be semifinals and then finals together. That will be in, I believe, May of this coming year.
Spirited: That’ll be a heck of a few days. Huh.
JP: It’s really fun. And you know, even at the Global competition, to have 50 of the best bartenders in the world literally in one room together is a real experience. And this is gonna be similar. We’re gonna have 30 of the best bartenders in the country all together. I can’t wait to see what happens.
Spirited: That’ll be fascinating. Now, there’s such a large concentration on education here. That’s something that maybe people don’t know or don’t think about when they enter a competition like this. How do USBG and Diageo approach that and make sure it’s a piece of each part of this competition?
JP: They approach it very, very intentionally. This is meant to be an educational platform. So for example, even this coming year, applications are live right now and they close November 15th. The very first round is called Ready Set Sprints challenge. So it’s making the sprints, but they’re specifically asking competitors to reference different parts of the Diageo Bar Academy of Things lessons that can be learned at the Diageo Bar Academy in their application. And that’s gonna make their application stronger. So just kind of checks and balances to make sure that people are using those resources and not just, you know, submitting their own thing and kind of ignoring that part.
Spirited: That’s really cool. You said you made a drink in the beginning that used a bunch of things that were part of the University of Minnesota, apples, corn, things like that. Can you tell us what you made and also how that represents you and where you come from?
JP: Okay, so I’ll actually tell you about a cocktail that was one of the regional competition cocktails, but it also used apples from the university. I think that’s cool. So there was a challenge in the top 50 round that was a Kettle One challenge, so a cocktail with Kettle One vodka as the base, and it was meant to highlight something about your hometown and bring in hometown ingredients. And so I wanted to focus on apples. Not everybody knows that some of the world’s most famous and best apple varietals were invented at the University of Minnesota, including the Honey Crisp. Minnesotans love to talk about Honey Crisp Apples. It’s got like a lot of hometown pride when it comes to Honey Crisp apples [laughs].
We gotta hang on to what we have. So I wanted to use Honey Crisp apples. I also wanted to do something a little playful, a little kitschy cuz I do a lot of that in my bar. I really love picking cocktails that maybe people don’t take entirely seriously snd then elevating them to be something that could be served in a contemporary cocktail bar. So I wanted to make an appletini. So I actually took Kettle One vodka obviously, and then a sour apple liqueur, and I took a local apple cider, like a sparkling cider, a pet nat-style cider, and I made it into vermouth. So I cooked it with botanicals and spices and specifically spruce tips that I had foraged, cuz we get really beautiful like tannic spruce tips in the spring, and made a vermouth out of them and then made an appletini that really drank more like a classic martini. It’s kind of vermouth forward, but then like Kettle One vodka, obviously this super smooth clean taste but still have like an apple-y punch to it.
Spirited: Definitely. That’s super cool. And I had no idea about the Honey Crisp or about Minnesota’s love for apples and history of apples. So you end up going to Nashville, you are crowned the US’ top bartender. What was it like to be crowned the US’ top bartender and then be sent off on a plane to the other side of the world to compete with the best?
JP: Competing in World Class is an intense experience. Winning World Class is a really intense experience. Like I said, no one was more surprised than I was, so it really took me aback a little bit, but it was just so cool to be part of the finals at all. Like those are 15 of some of the best bartenders in the country and being part of that group was amazing. I was crowned US bartender of the year and maybe like 10 o’clock, 10 or 11 o’clock at night. And by 10:00 AM the next morning, I had already received all of the challenges for the global finals in Australia, so there was very little time to rest and reflect. It was just right back in, which was really cool.
So the global finals were in Sydney, Australia this [past] September and I spent months preparing for it. So, when you think about the logistics of this kind of thing, they have to provide, for one thing, they’re transporting 50 bartenders from around the world to one location. Wow. And then they have to provide tools and ingredients and all sorts of logistical help. So people tend to think that, oh, you get there and then you make your cocktails. But I actually submitted all of my cocktail recipes. I knew exactly what I was gonna do and I how was going to do it over a month ahead of time.
And then you have time to do that. You submit your cocktails and then you have time to think about what you’re gonna say about them and how you’re going to present them. So you still get plenty of time to keep working and honing things. But, yeah, it’s definitely a fortune favors the prepared kind of game.
Spirited: Got it. Is that so that they can make sure they have everything necessary for you to create the cocktails that are there? And that’s gotta be a whole thing, I mean, coming from the US to Australia, that’s gotta be somewhat of a challenge, cuz I’m sure there’s things that you can’t get in Australia that you can get in the States and vice versa.
JP: Yeah. I was a little bit of a nervous wreck going through customs, worried that my ingredients would get confiscated. You know? It’s lots of logistical challenges when you’re taking 50 people from around the world to one country and they have fresh ingredients, they have tools. Some people chose to make all of their ingredients there cause we were provided with a really cool prep kitchen and time and space and tools. Others prepared more things ahead of time. I did as many things ahead of time as I could because I’m a worrier.
Spirited: I understand. I always think of a Simpsons episode every time I think of Australia. And there’s this one where there’s like a frog that comes with the Simpsons and destroys the entire ecosystem. So I would be very worried if I was going to Australia with a bunch of natural products and not sure how customs is going to take that.
JP: Yeah. No frog cocktails.
Spirited: I’m glad you understand the reference. So you went there, I’m sure you had an interesting experience and learned a lot. What was your biggest takeaway?
JP: Oh, it was amazing. It was really the experience of a lifetime. I met so many cool, wonderful people. Everyone was given some advice ahead of time like, “You kinda have to be careful, it can be really cutthroat. People are, you know, there to win, not to make friends.” I don’t want to discount anyone else’s experience, maybe other people have experienced that in the past, but that was not my experience at all. All of the other competitors were just kind and excited for each other and a bunch of goofy bartenders who just wanted to have fun and joke around with each other. It was, it was really cool to just make those connections. Definitely the best kind of long term takeaway for me is I now have a lot of bartender friends around the world that I can go visit or I’m hoping they’ll visit me. I’ll get to hang out in their bars, maybe even stage in some bars around the world and see different styles and just learn things from these people.
Spirited: That’s awesome. Did you have any chance to explore Sydney or anything like that? Or is it a very like, particular program where you don’t leave, your group?
JP: Our schedule was nicely open. I, because I have a lot of nervous energy, especially when competing. I started my day every day with a long run around Sydney. So I kind of got to explore. I had the time to do it. And then they did a good job of providing us with opportunities to see things around town. So we had dinners and events at different great bars around Sydney. And then I actually, and many competitors because it’s such a long flight, it’s so expensive, I ended up staying about four extra days after the competition just to explore Sydney. Some of the best cocktail bars in the world are in Sydney, so I really wanted to experience that as much as I could.
Spirited: As my last question is, what would you tell future competitors? What kind of advice would you give them?
JP: Man, I’ve got all kinds of advice. First thing I would tell people is just do it. Enter, enter the competition. No matter how well you do, you will learn something. If you advance to any sort of in person portion of the competition, you will meet a bunch of really cool people and make good friends. But either way, even if you don’t make it past the first round of the competition, no matter what, you’re going to get really detailed feedback from the judges. So you’ll learn something and then you come back next year and do it again. Or you take that to a different competition or use it within your bar, whatever. You’re gonna get feedback from some really talented, smart people no matter what. So there’s that. And then the other thing, like I said before is I’m a big believer that fortune favors the well prepared. So, just read those rules, read the rubrics, and get yourself organized. Put a reminder in the calendar for November 15th, do it for November 14th , so you actually do it on time. But you know, be organized and just submit an application.
Spirited: That’s great advice. Thank you so much for taking this early morning time to chat with me. It’s been great.
To apply for the 2023 USBG Presents World Class Sponsored By Diageo, head over to https://worldclass.usbg.org and make sure to send to send in your application by November 15.