Drinks

Meet the Most Imaginative Bartender Regional Finalists





The 10 finalists of the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation Most Imaginative Bartender presented by BOMBAY SAPPHIRE® competition represent a kaleidoscopic diversity of tastes, bartending styles, locations and philosophies. One thing that unites them? A passion for self-expression, both behind the stick and in vibrant off-the-clock pursuits, which can range from break-dancing to sustainable upcycling. For these bartenders, the professional and the personal aren’t siloed—they define each other like two sides of the same coin. Here, get to know the competitors and their creative interests, as well as the inspired cocktails they’ve created for this year’s contest.

REGIONAL FINALISTS

SOUTH
Loni Lewis | Savannah, Georgia
Orestes Cruz | Atlanta
Peter Hannah | Orlando, Florida

NORTH
Sungrae Choi | New York City
David Yee | Columbus, Ohio
Kelsey Ramage | Toronto

WEST
Michael Norbury | Victoria, British Columbia
Lee Zaremba | Los Angeles
Aspen Bingham | Phoenix

DISTILLER’S CUT
Jonathan Owens | New York City

SOUTH

NOLA MIB Finalists

South regional finalists (left to right): Peter Hannah, Loni Lewi, Orestes Cruz

“My style as a bartender is not to follow other styles,” says Savannah, Georgia–based bartender Loni Lewis. By following her passion for sustainability and upcycling ingredients, she has discovered new avenues of mixological inspiration, leading to innovative drinks that delight the senses while reducing waste. Instead of looking to classic cocktail compendiums for ideas, she’s more likely to chat up chefs and find out what’s in their fridges. “I think that to truly be yourself, you have to put blinders on. If you’re looking at what other people are doing, your true creativity is not really going to shine.”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Upcycling and repurposing.

How does it inspire you?
I will ask the chef, “Hey, what do you guys think in the kitchen that’s being thrown out right now will make a good cocktail?” And I make a cocktail out of it. And I just try to be the most creative I can.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Be a cheerful giver.

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
I let my creativity and curiosity for flavors lead, and I always remember that classics are a construct.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of the competition so far?
I’ve really loved getting to show my passion for upcycling and sustainability to a larger audience and inspiring people along the way to add more sustainable [ideas] to their cocktail program.

Best thing you ever drank:
A Caipirinha on the beach in Panama.

Worst thing you ever drank:
I once had a sweet tea that they put in a pickle barrel instead of the sweet barrel.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
One time I tried to use all of a honeydew. I was going to use the skin, the seed, the juice, the pulp, everything. When I got to the skin, I was like, what if I throw it in with some pineapples to make tepache? Yeah—that didn’t turn out.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
I always find it really weird when people ask for dirty rocks on the side. 

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
A Daiquiri.

Lazarus

Loni Lewis finds second life for ingredients scavenged from the kitchen, transforming them into a savory-sweet cocktail.

Born in Mexico City and now based in Atlanta, Orestes Cruz has lived, traveled and worked throughout South America, the U.S. South and Europe, absorbing a mélange of influences on both his cocktails and his creative pursuit: painting. For drinks, he’s drawn to sour-style cocktails that evoke the brightness and freshness of Mexico, fashioned with the elegance and refinement of the New Orleans French restaurants where he has tended bar. As a painter, his style is reminiscent of abstract expressionism, drawing inspiration from Pollock’s drippings and Rothko’s color fields. For Cruz, the creative spark lies in the balance between abstraction and execution. “The color selection, the garnish selection, the glass selection, every detail—it’s like making art,” he says. 

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Painting.

How does it inspire you?
It’s similar, how you build a drink and paint or draw something. You have your blank canvas and your empty glass, and then you start adding colors and ingredients. There’s something magical about it, like alchemy.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Be yourself.

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
It’s kind of like the [opening credits of] The Pink Panther, where the Pink Panther grabs the screen and starts folding it and folding it, and makes a little square, and then adds salt and eats it. It’s eating everything, or kind of absorbing everything, from your environment and letting it become a part of yourself.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?

The human factor. Meeting all the people I have met, learning from other people, is the best.

Best thing you ever drank:
A Mojito in Havana, Cuba.

Worst thing you ever drank:
A reverse Aviation.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I made one with a fat-washed peanut butter for a Cognac competition. It was pretty weird, with lemon, peanut butter and banana, but it worked.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
A Water Moccasin shot.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Now that we’re getting into fall and winter, Negronis. 

Gema Rosa

This floral, Southern-inspired cocktail is a paean to the places around the world that have influenced Orestes Cruz’s cocktails and art.

“Bartending is the most fun way to make a living that I can think of, outside of being the lead guitarist for The Rolling Stones or designing roller coasters,” says Peter Hannah, a U.K. native now based in Orlando, Florida. His dual passions—rock and roll, and pouring drinks—share both a freewheeling, fun energy and an emphasis on heritage. “I build songs the way I build cocktails—by understanding where things come from,” he says. “It’s built on classic roots.”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Rock and roll.

How does it inspire you?
I like working in bands; I always liked team sports. So when I’m working behind the bar, it’s [similarly about] unique voices that work in equilibrium.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
If it sounds good, try it.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
The collaboration.

Best thing you ever drank:
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs.

Worst thing you ever drank:
Nonfat milk.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
There was a period when I was determined to make blue drinks without just using blue Curaçao. I thought maybe if I took something green and removed the yellow, whatever would be left would be blue. Maybe a chemist could tell you if that’s doable or not, but I couldn’t [do it].

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Years ago, back in England, I was asked for something called Oggy’s Membrane. I never found out what was in it.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Americano.

The Date Night Highball

Peter Hannah subtly unpacks the nuances of its base spirit, gin, in a fizzy highball that’s long on complexity.

NORTH

Detroit Finalists

North regional finalists (left to right): David Yee, Kelsey Ramage, Sungrae Choi

As a child growing up in South Korea, Sungrae Choi was hooked on European League soccer—and part of the fun was following the eye-catching, changing hairstyles of players like Sergio Ramos and David Beckham. That fascination with coiffures led to a career as a barber in the South Korean navy, as well as a discovery of the historical, Prohibition-era links between barbershops and speakeasies. Giving up the buzzer for the shaker, Choi is now based in New York City, where he designs cocktails that evoke vivid, sometimes unexpected, sensory experiences.

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Barbering.

How does it inspire you?
Getting a haircut is a sensory experience. This has made me become more in tune with all the small senses and their impact. When I experience something, I try to quickly grasp what its best characteristics are and how to highlight them. A good haircut is obvious—there is no explanation needed to show how the lines are neatly connected or well-balanced. It’s inspiring how this is understood by the client intuitively. 

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
From my wife. She said: “Don’t compare yourself to other people; compare yourself to who you were yesterday.” I think it’s important to not be focused on other people’s achievement, but to put your energy towards your own goals and passions, to share them with others. 

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
I try to create things that are understood easily by the guest, so they can intuitively understand what my goal was by drawing from their own experiences.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
Before you do anything, it’s very important to understand who you are. MIB has encouraged me to get back into the mindset of better understanding myself and my motivators. 

Best thing you ever drank:
At Pine & Co in Seoul, Korea, they made a cocktail that was inspired by old people’s smell… [caused by] a chemical called hexanal. It had notes of florals, grain and musk. It blew my mind. I never imagined that a cocktail with this concept could work so well. 

Worst thing you ever drank:
It was a very sweet and boozy cocktail made with mushrooms and bonito.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I made a cocktail that smells like the sea. It was made with manzanilla sherry, dill-melon syrup, kombu-bonito bitters and peat whisky. Funny enough, the kombu-bonito bitters made it quite fishy. In the end, I achieved my goal, but it was too much like the ocean to enjoy. 

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Dirty Martini, extra dirty, extra dry, with extra olives.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Gin Rickey, Negroni, Penicillin or Bamboo.

Sungrae-Choi MIB Cocktail

Meet Me at the Blind Tiger

This drink’s mix of sweet and sharp strives to mirror the mix of sensations of visiting a barbershop.

David Yee, an Ohio-based bartender and writer, was a regional finalist in the 2020 MIB contest. The experience lent him new perspective on the idea of creativity and how to share it with others. In the years since, he has published a collection of short stories (Mongolian Horse, from Black Lawrence Press), started a new concept for a bar he’s set to open with a partner by the end of 2022, and is back in the MIB game with a renewed appreciation for how to communicate his love of the literary arts. “The idea is, what if people found the same amount of wonder from books that I found? What if we just promote the wonder that books can provide to you?”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Reading and writing. When I’m not behind the bar, it’s what I strive to do as often as possible.

How does it inspire you?
Reading helps me see a world past my current lived experience. It inspires me to want to learn more and create. Writing helps me meditate on a thought. It helps me develop an idea, and the accomplishment of creating something new is an incredible feeling. 

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Be kind, always.

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
Have fun; reach far; edit.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
Meeting such inspiring people. It is reinvigorating to hear everyone’s pursuits and passions.

Best thing you ever drank:
Connaught Bar’s Number 11 cocktail is a highlight. 

Worst thing you ever drank:
Someone tell Jonathon Rodriguez [at Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club] that a Gin & Diet [Coke] in a pint glass isn’t a cocktail called a Big Dirty, it’s just foul. 

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
Ramen packet, Japanese whisky Manhattan. I still stand behind it. 

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Pinot grigio on ice with tonic, pinch of salt. 

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
The least popular cocktail on the house menu. Probably what I’m looking for. Or two-thirds Henny, one-third Malört. 

Intro to Fiction

This cocktail takes its flavor cues from David Yee’s memories of eating white rice and duck sauce while reading.

Toronto-based bartender Kelsey Ramage started working bar shifts as a way to help pay off the bills from her degree in fashion marketing. But after breaking into the fashion industry, she realized it wasn’t giving her a chance to exercise her creativity—rather, the hospitality industry was. As she’s honed her craft working in nightclubs, as a sommelier, and at decorated cocktail programs in London, she’s developed a style of drinks that embraces whimsy and lighthearted fun. The bar world has allowed her to incorporate her passion for design, which, for her, translates to the holistic experience around a drink. “It’s a multisensory experience for people,” she says. “You’re talking about flavor, music choices, interiors—it’s so much more than just one piece.”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Design and color theory.

How does it inspire you?
I can take my background in fashion design and apply that to … all the facets of creating a whole bar space rather than just cocktails. Whenever I’m creating a menu for a hotel, I’ll ask them for photos of their interior.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Pay attention to what others are doing only so that you don’t do the same thing.

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
Research off seasonality and then stabilize it, so you can have those flavors through the course of the menu before you change it.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
I made so many friends at this last competition.

Best thing you ever drank:
One of the bartenders I used to work with at Dandelyan would do this delicious Piña Colada with a Fernet float on top.

Worst thing you ever drank:
I had a fermented corn thing that was so gross—lumpy and weird.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I did a kefir fermentation on coconut milk. It turned this sort of weird, sour flavor, like it had acidity, but it was sweet. It was good, but weird.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
I was asked for something textural, but without egg whites.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
If it’s dealer’s choice, I always go for something with rum, a touch of agricole, fresh, shaken, floral. That is always my ask.

Peach Buzz

Kelsey Ramage loves peaches, and inspiration for this cocktail struck at the end of the season, when the fruit reaches peak ripeness.

WEST

Denver MIB Finalists

Denver regional finalists (left to right): Lee Zaremba, Aspen Bingham, Michael Norbury

Michael Norbury had been a bartender for years, but it wasn’t until he watched the documentary Hey Bartender that he began to see it as a serious profession. While working his way up through some of the best bars in Victoria, British Columbia, he honed a style that tends toward spirit-forward expressions. “The cocktail that, for me, was like hearing your favorite song for the first time or falling in love, was a Manhattan,” says Norbury. On his off days, he’s hiking, camping or wandering around the west coast of Vancouver Island, searching for inspiration among the native flora.

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Navigating the great outdoors.

How does it inspire you?
I want to utilize my surroundings much like a winemaker would. When I walk down the hiking trail and I see a big, big, wild blackberry bush, that’s inspiration for a bramble cocktail. Terroir drives [my cocktails].

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t worry about things you have no control over, like COVID-19, but do focus on those things you can control, like going for hikes, FaceTiming your parents, and really just finding ways to keep your mind positive.

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
Inspiration, brand knowledge, flavor profile and sharing.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
The overwhelming lead-up to the competition was the most rewarding.

Best thing you ever drank:
I had the Chainbreaker White IPA from the Deschutes Brewery in Portland in 2014 before I had gone on any sort of palate journey. That was the first time I had an aha! moment—it almost made me emotional, because I’d never experienced anything like that.

Worst thing you ever drank:
A cheese cocktail. It haunts me.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I was asked to make a cocktail with mayonnaise. I did tequila, mayo, Cynar, lemon and a little bit of agave. It was gross still, but balanced, at least.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
A Prairie Fire shot—tequila and Tabasco sauce.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
I usually order from the menu at first to make friends see what they’re about. As it goes on, I’ll probably just revert back to the classics.

Cardinal Points

Michael Norbury combines warm flavors of orange, maple, mushroom and berries in a silky stirred cocktail.

A former professional break-dancer, Lee Zaremba craved a job that combined creativity, physicality and the kind of vibrant social interaction that brought the dance floor to life. He found it working behind the bar, where he’s now developing drinks programs for a number of bars and restaurants. Currently based in Los Angeles, he’s working on opening a bar this fall called Let’s Go Disco and Cocktail Club. For Zaremba, both bartending and dancing offer “this beautiful shared substance in community,” he says. “I need that. I’m too extroverted to not have that.”

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Break-dancing.

How does it inspire you?
Break-dancing is entrepreneurship and community. It has a history, but the people who do it well pay homage to that history and innovate from it. All the same things I get out of bartending are the things that made me really value and love my career in break-dancing.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Stop running from who you are.

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
Let’s get weird… but not too weird.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
Everyone is rooting for and believing in everybody else, being open and communicative and sharing.

Best thing you ever drank:
My first-ever root beer as a kid.

Worst thing you ever drank:
Celery juice.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I was like, I’m going to do an oyster Martini. I figured it out eventually, but the many different iterations of using anything from the ocean that had a salty brininess to it was a long voyage I don’t care to retake.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
Back in 2012, a Long Island Iced Tea was a weird request.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
Negroni or Old-Fashioned, depending on what time of year it is.

Cobblers Make Kicks

An eclectic white wine cobbler that references hip-hop’s influence on Lee Zaremba’s approach to bartending.

For Arizona bartender Aspen Bingham, the craft cocktail trade offers a medium to express her twin passions: artistic creativity and environmental sustainability. As a former ballet dancer, “I really connected with bartending because I saw that it could also be an artistic outlet, which I’ve had for most of my life,” she says. At the same time, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sustainability informs her ecological worldview, which has led to an approach driven by sourcing local ingredients. “I can take everything I’m passionate about and funnel it into a career,” says Bingham.

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Sustainability.

How does it inspire you?
Sustainability inspires me by challenging me to look at the world as an interconnected web. With my cocktails, I really like to explore the difficult topics of sustainability … [and] partnering with a lot of local businesses so I can come up with solutions and talk about those daunting issues in a more positive way.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve ever received would have to be from my grandmother. She always told me that when you’re working, you shouldn’t react and you shouldn’t personalize.

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
I like to explore difficult topics through my cocktails so that I can come up with creative solutions.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
I really enjoy seeing how truly unique humans are within their own creative processes. And see how it affects the people around them in such a positive way.

Best thing you ever drank:
I really love the Coupette Colada. A few restaurants in Phoenix have it, but it’s based off a cocktail from London.

Worst thing you ever drank:
A cotton candy vodka Espresso Martini. It was just not fun.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I made this clear gelatin and suspended edible flowers in there. So the drink was clear and it looked like the flowers were in suspended animation. In hindsight, it took way too long, but it looked really cool.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
A shot request for blue Curaçao, Fireball and Baileys.

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
I love a classic Daiquiri.

Heat Island Effect

Dry and spicy with a hint of sweetness, Aspen Bingham’s sage-touched cocktail evokes the smell of the desert.

DISTILLER’S CUT

The Distiller’s Cut is a wild-card selection made by Bombay Sapphire’s Master Distiller, Dr. Anne Brock.

For Jonathan Owens, a New York City bartender who grew up in New Orleans and Richmond, Virginia, working behind the bar is a rollicking good time—a joy he aims to share with everyone who orders a drink. “Usually my M.O. is, if the music is good and people want to shake ass, that’s where I want to bartend,” says Owens. “But the real part is, no matter what people are going through, I like [having] the ability to change their day.” A self-described “baby producer,” he also organizes nightlife events like drag shows and dance parties that feature live music and live artists. Whatever side of the bar he’s on during a given night, Owens strives to create moments of connection and joy. “I want you to feel good on the inside, and I want it to sound good on the outside,” he says.

What is your creative outlet outside of bartending?
Producing events and performances.

How does it inspire you?
I want to provide you with a one-of-a-kind of experience where you keep coming back because you want to feel that high again. I like to provide a vibe that you can feel, that you can taste. I want everybody just to have a moment that they’re like, I’m so happy I came to this. That’s how I feel when I’m behind the bar.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
A closed mouth doesn’t get fed. I’ve always learned to speak my mind.

Describe your creative process in one sentence:
Dream big and then bring it back to reality.

What’s been the most rewarding aspect of competition so far?
I was thinking I would never get to the top 40, but it just kept escalating. Never giving up and being able to have an idea in your head and manifest it in the physical world is pretty crazy.

Best thing you ever drank:
I love a grapefruit soda.

Worst thing you ever drank:
The worst thing I’ve had recently are badly made Margaritas. I don’t know how these people mess up Margaritas, but they do.

Weirdest cocktail experiment you’ve ever attempted:
I thought a customer wanted me to shake olives in a Martini, but that wasn’t what he meant; he just wanted a shaken Martini with olives. But I shook it with olives, and it actually came out pretty nice. It looks really avant-garde. So I’m in the business of smashed-olive Martinis now.

Weirdest drink request you’ve ever gotten:
I had someone ask for a really clean Old-Fashioned, no bitters or sugar. I was like, so you want bourbon on the rocks? They were like, yeah. I was like, word, here’s your Old-Fashioned. 

What’s your go-to drink in a cocktail bar?
I like a Tequila Gumption.

Johnathan Owens MIB

Act a Fool

Jonathan Owens tops his citrusy sour with a cava rosé float and Cajun grapefruit foam garnish.

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