Coffee cocktail-making virtuosi Vito Sportelli and Andrea Peconio have been crowned champions at the 2018’s Coffee Mixologists tournament at Amsterdam Coffee Festival. The Italians battled seven other teams of two, across four rounds, over the three days of last month's festival in Holland. Sponsored by Tia Maria, Sanremo, and Daarnhouwer in its second year, Coffee Mixologists is fast emerging as a major new competitive coffee event, and carries with it a sizable cash prize.
While 2017’s winners were a Dutch barista and bartender duo who proved to be deft partners in drink-making (and as of January, baby-making), this year’s title and €1,000 prize went to close-knit colleagues. Both are trainers at Barproject, a beverage events and consulting company in Bari, the seaport city located where, if Italy’s boot were imagined cowboy-style, the spur would jut. A 39 year old from Conversano, Sportelli also runs his own cocktail catering company, Aperinfresco, and 28-year-old Peconio moonlights as head bartender at Kabuki, a club, bar, and restaurant in his hometown of Bari.
Sportelli and Peconio’s signature drink, called the Terrone, combined two coffees from Italian specialty roaster Edo Quarta—a natural Colombian Quindio Villa Roa and a washed Kenyan Karindundo Nyery—with booze aplenty. An ibrik warmed up the spirits before smoking them and incorporating angostura bitters, thyme, and cascara.
For the second year of the tournament, returning judges included Anne Lunell, co-founder of Swedish roaster Koppi, and Hani Asfdaai, acclaimed bartender and owner of Noah in Rotterdam. New to adjudication this year was 2017 London Coffee Masters champion James Wise, and serving as the affable and enthusiastic MC was Dave Jameson, a twice-crowned UK Coffee in Good Spirits champion and coffee program manager at Bewley’s UK.
“I was really impressed with Vito and Andrea from their first performance,” Jameson shared with Sprudge. “They didn’t make a bad drink all weekend, and the drink they prepared in the final was just sublime! Very deserving winners and I look forward to seeing them performing again soon.”
Before heading to the London Coffee Festival—to hold mixology and coffee training sessions as part of the Cimbali Sensory Series—Sportelli and Peconio answered some questions for Sprudge about the contest and their careers.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you get involved in coffee and cocktails?
Vito Sportelli: Studying and experimenting with basic products as part of being a professional Italian barista, and having the products always present in the bar where we usually work.
Andrea Peconio: My passion led me to get experience working with alcohol. That then led to experience with coffee preparation and eventually how to mix them together.
Why did you decide to enter the Coffee Mixologists competition?
VS: It was a challenge—to get out of our comfort zone and have us confront professionals beyond our own country.
AP: To set ourselves outside our home environment and see what it would be like to put that kind of pressure on ourselves.
Do you consider one of yourselves more of a barista and the other a bartender, or do you both feel equally comfortable with coffee and cocktails?
VS: Thanks to all the work we have done in recent years, we are quite complementary in both disciplines.
AP: We are both bartenders though, above all, work well together as a close-knit team.
In the first round, The Signature Drink, you prepared the Terrone, which include Bols Genever 1575 and Imea Gineprina d’Olanda 1897. Did making this drink for a competition in Amsterdam influence the decision to use traditional Dutch alcohol?
VS: Absolutely. We like to create drinks that are not just perfectly balanced, but that also have cultural content. We were thinking about how to create a union between our land and the Amsterdam Coffee Festival.
AP: Terrone is the result of the Barproject crew’s teamwork. However, Dutch products were chosen to honor Dutch culture.
How was working with the secret ingredients in The Mystery round?
VS: Stimulating and fun.
AP: And to succeed in these rounds, we focused on really evaluating the characteristics of the single-origin coffee that we had to use.
What was the hardest part about the competition?
VS: During the semi-final [in the Redefining the Classic round], the competition required us to reinterpret a Black Russian. The greatest effort was reinventing it without being banal. We revised it tiki-style, keeping the characteristics of the drink when in contact with the lips and letting it evolve during the drinking process so it could still carry exotic notes.
While Italy leads in the world in terms of coffee technology, your country's specialty coffee roasting and cafe scene is still emerging. Do you see yourselves as ambassadors for contemporary Italian coffee or cocktails?
VS: We believe that a barista in Italy must necessarily know all the materials that he deals with during his work, and we work every day applying this philosophy—above all, during our shifts behind the bar.
We have been working with specialty products for six years now, incorporating them in our consumer education and catering, all while respecting the concept of made-in-Italy as well as new world trends.
Is there something specifically Italian that you brought to this competition?
VS: Probably the all-Italian ability to communicate and excite.
What’s in store for the future?
VS: I hope to be able to continue traveling, to explore how to experiment, and maybe thanks to this victory, to have new job opportunities abroad.
AP: I would like to open a club of my own and continue to grow my professional skills.
Karina Hof is a Sprudge staff writer based in Amsterdam. Read more Karina Hof on Sprudge.
Photos courtesy of the Amsterdam Coffee Festival unless otherwise noted.