Words by Theodora Sutcliffe
Zviad Khuntsaria has a competitive streak a mile wide. Growing up Georgian, he wanted to be a football player, but his parents steered him to the ultra-competitive world of Georgian traditional dance, an athletic, high-energy tradition that makes Cossack dancers look like pussies.
"I'm a very competitive person, so whatever I do I have to be the best," says Khuntsaria. Head bartender at Roka Dubai, he's representing the United Arab Emirates (UAE), his adoptive home, at the Patrón Perfectionists global final this May. "Once I started dancing, I quickly adapted and learned and then I became one of the soloists."
Khuntsaria fell into bartending while studying business administration in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. He started as a runner at Buddha Bar, a franchise of the Paris icon that had recently opened, and was immediately caught by the magic of the bar. "I saw how the bartenders were working, I saw the reaction from people," he recalls. "They were stars of the place, you know, I was like, 'Okay, I'm going to move there, I'm going to do the same.'"
Khuntsaria progressed rapidly. But standards in Tbilisi, the million-strong capital of a country with a population of under four million altogether, were not high, and his move to cosmopolitan Dubai proved a real education. "Once I graduated university, I just wanted to move somewhere," he recalls. A friend connected him to a local company that was helping people find work in the Middle East, and he applied for a job pretty much at random.
"During the interview, they told me, 'You're actually applying for the highest bar in the world, Atmosphere at Burj Khalifa,' Khuntsaria recalls. "I didn't even know what the Burj Khalifa was."
From Georgia to Dubai
Travelling from Tbilisi to Dubai, the culture shock was intense-and not just because he was working 442 metres (1,450 feet) above the city amid outside temperatures that could soar to almost 50°C (122°F). "It's such a cool experience, every day you're literally meeting someone from another country you never visited or heard about," Khuntsaria says. "But it was difficult to adapt at the beginning because of not understanding English properly." He struggled especially with the range of international accents.
Despite a period recuperating back home in Georgia after a nasty motorbike accident in Bali, Khuntsaria has called Dubai home for over five years. With genius timing, he started at Roka just before Covid's first wave hit.
"We opened right before the pandemic happened," he says. "We had the soft opening, then two days of grand opening, and then lockdown happened for a month and after lockdown was Ramadan so no alcohol was sold, so it was quite tricky."
To be a Perfectionist
Khuntsaria counts competition winners among his mentors, but it was Patrón's local brand ambassador Nick Koumbarakis who encouraged him to join the contest. Winning a place in the finals was crazy, he says. "When I saw my face on the big screen the emotions were completely different. I started shouting and screaming; I couldn't believe it. It took me, like, a week to realise that I won."
Despite making the finals, Khuntsaria is not 100% confident with the word 'perfectionist'. "It's a tough word, perfectionist. I have everywhere, in whatever I do, I try to do my best: if it's not perfect for someone else, it has to be perfect for me," he says. He's meticulous about setting up his bar station and demands attention to small, small details, such as the direction a bottle is facing, from his team.
Having dreaded that this year's final would end up being virtual, Khuntsaria is super-excited to be headed to Patrón's Hacienda for the final. He's excited about the whole journey. "I think it's going to be a great platform to build connections," he says. "Meeting all these great bartenders and connecting with them."
Naturally, he hopes to win, but even making the final is a huge achievement. As far as Khuntsaria knows, he's the first Georgian to make a global bartending final. "When you're competing and you're on a peak of your emotions, you want to give your best," he says. "I believe there hasn't been a global UAE winner in any competition. So if that can happen, and I can make it, it's going to be really cool."
Zviad Khuntsaria's Winning Cocktail: Rising San
Highballs are a big part of the bar program at Roka Dubai, the contemporary Japanese robatayaki restaurant, so a Japanese highball was a natural choice for Khuntsaria. To add interest to the delicate combination of sake, tequila, tonic and orange, Khuntsaria infused his sake with fennel seeds. "Fennel itself is quite a powerful ingredient but you have to find the right balance not to overpower the tequila but also to keep alive the sake," he says. "Fennel itself is quite traditional in Mexican cuisine, in salsa, and in Georgian cuisine we use a lot of another type of fennel, not seeds but the plant itself."
35 ml Patrón Silver
20 ml Fennel seed infused sake
10 ml Triple sec
3 dash Orange bitters
80 ml Tonic water
Pour all ingredients into a chilled highball glass full of ice (ideally spear ice) and garnish with a burned grapefruit wedge.
To make the fennel infused sake: heat up a pan, add fennel seeds and roast them on a low temperature for 3-5 minutes until they release their oils. Combine 7.5g fennel seed with 200g sake and cold infuse for one hour.