Brand Chat: Krystal Hart, World Class Brand Ambassador

Words by Jane Ryan

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Each year Australia's bar industry tunes in to see who will make the cut for World Class – a competition so respected in the industry that winners are remembered, celebrated and, to a degree, revered. With Australia’s final three announced, and just a week away from finding out who will represent the country for 2021, we caught up with the hard-working Aussie face of World Class, Krystal Hart.

What did the road look like from Brisbane bartender to World Class Ambassador?

I’ve been working with Diageo coming up on eight years and I joined as a brand ambassador, looking after Queensland initially. Before that I was a national finalist for World Class a few times so for me it’s always been my favourite cocktail competition and it was definitely a draw card for becoming an ambassador – being able to not only work on Diageo brands but to be a part of this highly regarded competition. I worked at a whole bunch of venues in Brisbane but probably the most notable would have been Canvas, back in the day, I also worked at the Bowery, Press Club and a bunch of wine bars.
Having come from the bar industry, this is a job that makes me feel like I’m still connected and like I can give back to future bartenders with the education that I think comes along with some of the best cocktail competitions.

You still work bar shifts in Sydney’s Bulletin Place though, right?

Yes! When I moved to Sydney I thought it was a great way to stay connected and feel like the programs I’m writing are relevant for bartenders now, and I love service to be honest. If you’ve been to Bulletin on a Friday and Saturday you’ll known how it just hums. It helps me keep in mind how important it is to be on top of your game, the role hosting can play and how important it is to create a great environment.

For anyone scratching their head that a competition has an ambassador, can you tell us about what that role looks like?

Absolutely, so day to day it can be anything from helping to write and create the challenges for the program, to looking after the series of advocacy programs throughout the year. That means ensuring that a lot of the bartenders who go through the competition feel connected and at the forefront of anything we do. During lockdown we were part of a wonderful World Class Cocktail Week where we had the opportunity to host a series of discussions that were super relevant to the community, and I was able to create content and host as a panel moderator. So anything from creating programs, communicating with trade and hosting training sessions – it’s a pretty diverse role which is quite exciting.

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This year World Class has had to switch to a virtual format – has that made it super challenging for the team?

It certainly has, but on the other hand it meant we had an opportunity to be really thoughtful in our approach and I think our Diageo team were cognisant of creating a competition that was empathetic so we rewrote it so many times, trying to understand what bartenders needed, what they wanted, and also what they could deliver in such a unique environment and I’m pretty confident in the program we’ve put forward.

This is one of the first years where we’ve been able to offer prizes for each of the rounds and we wanted – especially during our current times of working from home and really being restricted in terms of travel – to have a global perspective, so being able to partner with talent like Kelsey Ramage and Kaitlyn Stewart has created a strong global footprint to help educate local bartenders.

The top 100 seemed like a diverse group of bartenders from every major city?

It really was, especially this year. We’ve definitely had some wonderful surprises in terms of how bartenders are ranked and I think it shows you the power of education and mentorship and really understanding that bartenders come in many shapes and forms – we’re not working in an era, necessarily, of button-up suits and bowties. If that’s what you enjoy, then absolutely this competition is for you, but if you are a more relaxed bartender, then this competition also works in your favour. So we’re really looking at a more holistic approach to how we educated and inspire bartenders through World Class.

In terms of our judging process, it’s quite interesting as we always judge anonymously so the entire brand ambassador team essentially are all locked down in a war room. This year was virtual but we still followed a similar process where we don’t know bartenders’ names, the venues the come from or the state they work in. Ultimately every entry to the opening round is judged blind and then we reveal – even for ourselves – the top 100, which is a wonderful process to be a part of, it’s great to be leading a program that is unbiased, it’s quite exciting.

The top three now face some rigorous challenges to narrow them down to one. Who sets these and how?

Whenever it comes to the pointy end of World Class, or the national finals, we always want to make sure there’s a series of challenges that looks at all the different skills our Australian winner might face in the global competition. We sit down with a bunch of internal brand ambassadors and a series of industry professionals and we understand what the focus of the brands are and then we look at the skills we need to see from the Australian champion, what’s relevant in terms of trade focus and trend setting, and we create challenges based around those priorities.

There’s often a global toolkit that gets created so we have a lot of input in from a global perspective but Australia in particular is seen as one of the leading markets for World Class, so we often have a lot of creative license so long as we’re working within brand guidelines.

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Australia normally does very well, is that a nice reflection for the work you and team do here on the ground?

We’ve come away with two global champions and generally we’ve had bartenders like Andrea in the top 4, or we’ve had bartenders in the final global list, so as a result we try to make sure that we provide opportunities to upskill our bartenders and to give them the tools they need to successfully compete in the global finals from the moment they enter. It’s a pretty daunting process going up there, some years it’s 62 countries in competition with each other, so ensuring the mentorship and training is at the forefront means we’ve got bartenders going into the competition feeling really confident and excited to tackle the global finals.

I think every one of our brand ambassadors, myself included, love World Class and often we reflect on it being one of the most exciting programs we get to run. When we get to see the fruits of our labour, having competitors who are really excited and challenged by World Class, I think that’s a great reflection of the program for the year but even more importantly it’s a reflection of Australia as a whole and the bar scene.

Your final three, Evan Stroeve, David Aznar and Kayla Saito, are all very different bartenders. Is there something they have in common that put them in the top three?

You’re right, all of them have different skill sets and come from a variety of venues. To start off with all three of them had the best Johnnie Walker Highballs, which was one of the main considerations – essentially the only consideration – that enabled us to get to the top three. Interestingly and looking back in hindsight, these were the only three competitors that across the whole competition ranked incredibly high. What I love about World Class is, yes it’s a platform and it’s an incredible networking opportunity, but whether it’s Australia or whether it’s global, where we see the greatest success in the program is consistency and consistently putting your best foot forward and creating the best drinks possible generally returns in a high achievement and we walk away with a great competitor. All three of these competitors have done incredibly well across the whole competition.

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The Highballs popping up on our insta feed looked insanely good – how did it go from your end?

They were so good, it was definitely the hardest year to judge, but to see the output from bars all over the country, the great turn out from Darwin and from Adelaide, just proves this competition is national and from all of the amazing drinks the proof really is in the pudding.

Once the national winner is announced, we go straight into World Class Cocktail Festival. Have you been heavily involved in that?

Yes, absolutely. We’ve had the chance to shine the light on seven of the world’s best bars that are right here in Australia, and what I love about this program is we’re collaborating directly with venues. It’s a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our states are opening back up, events are starting to happen and bars are allowing greater occupancy.

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What can our final winner expect this year from the global competition?

Our first-ever fully virtual final will run from the 4th-8th July 2021 with 55 countries taking place. One thing we can anticipate is a series of challenges that will test our Australian winner and from what we’ve been told, presenting will be just as important as turning out a great cocktail. Of course, it always is, but living in the virtual world there’s a difference between being engaging online and in person so we’re going to be looking for an Australian champion that not only produces wonderful drinks but can work a camara and be just as captivating virtually as they are live, so it’s a really interesting time for the global competition.

Over the five days there'll be opportunities for everyone to both watch the competition and engage with some amazing virtual and interactive experiences. From events to trend-led panels, masterclasses to AR-bars – the entire festival has been re-imagined to adapt to the realities of today’s climate.

Your job is essentially mentoring bartenders through this huge and exciting competition. Who has been your mentor throughout the years?

There’s been a lot of amazing World Class brand ambassadors before me who in turn teach you the way to conduct yourself and teach you that hard work is worthwhile. The likes of Natalia Ng who was in the role previously to me and the wonderful Chris Hysted-Adams before that, there was Sean Baxter who’s now gone on to open his own distillery too. We all started out as bartenders as well, and for me the likes of Jay Lambert and Marco Nunes definitely taught me the finer arts of bartending and patience and that’s the building blocks of the whole industry. The value of a wonderful cocktail and to have that enjoyed by a customer is, for me, one of the most satisfying things going. Having that eventually translate into being a brand ambassador is quite exciting. We all walk on the shoulders of giants and everyone has their own journey but along the way we’re gifted the opportunity to spend time with people who’ve done it all before of us.

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