Mixologist Egor Polonskiy Reflects on the 2016 World Class Nationals
Mixologist Egor Polonskiy started his bartending career in Russia and now calls Chicago home. At the 2016 World Class Nationals in Washington, D.C., though, he showed off a skill perfected during his time in Florida: coconut cracking. This was Egor’s second year competing at the Nationals, and we caught up with him afterwards to learn more about his cocktail inspirations, why he’ll definitely be back again next year—and those coconut drinks, of course.
Breakthru: This was your second year at World Class. Any surprises during this year’s competition?
Egor: Yes, it was my second year. It was my first year in the national finals. If anything did surprise me, I think it’s hard to tell because the level of competition was so high. I was kind of expecting a lot of things, so I would not say that there would be anything that surprised me in terms of organization or the way the competition was handled. What did surprise me was I thought I was preparing really hard but everyone else was preparing just as hard as me. I thought for some people it might just be like another competition and not that everybody was taking it as serious as I did. Actually I was surprised that everybody did.
Breakthru: How do you prepare for this type of competition?
Egor: I probably spent around 30 hours every week before the competition just figuring out ideas, practicing speed rounds, going to the market looking at what fresh ingredients are there, because DC shouldn’t be much different than what we have in Chicago. I was trying to figure out a game plan, a universal scenario that I would always be able to use. Shopping, going around the city and using some resources that are here in Chicago—tea stores, coffee stores—trying to find something unique. I spent tons of time trying to do research to see how this competition was in other countries. I was trying to put as much thought into it as I could. I was trying to get myself behind the bar as much as I could because I don’t really bartend that much right now. I’ve been more on the overseeing side, so getting back in the feeling of what it is, is important. I did that as much as I could. Also what is important to me is a balance of things. You can’t only prepare for one side. Every time I have an important competition or something I physically prepare. I try to put my body in a physical position that I not only feel confident in the way I know things, the way I perform technically but also physically. So it’s like going to the gym and running. All together it was a long journey of preparation.
Breakthru: How long did it take you before you were able to crack open coconuts like you did in the market challenge?
Egor: Well, I used to live in Florida before. I used to crack coconuts all the time there, but I never really got behind the science of it. I watched a couple videos of how to do it right and a tried a couple times at home and they didn’t come out right. They were uneven. So I bought six coconuts for the Market Challenge and that was the last step I would do: Try and crack the coconuts open and see if it would work. If it worked I would use it as the serving glass, and if it didn’t I would serve it in a regular cocktail glass. It worked from the very first one, which never happened before. I got lucky I think. They’re tricky. You can’t rely on them to come out perfectly.
Breakthru: Out of all the drinks you made at the competition, which ones stood out as favorites?
Egor: I think they were all solid cocktails. I was definitely fond of the one I did for the roulette, a swivel, which was the technique I had to use. It was a very simple cocktail but it was delicious. It was really easy to execute, with just the simple syrup and garnished with mint on top. It has a simple, bold, smoky flavor.
Breakthru: And you won the bartender roulette round, right?
Breakthru: Any other standouts from the drinks you made?
Egor: I enjoyed the coconut drink I did. I really knew what I was doing. I’ve done this drink many times. The other one I did that I liked has interesting elements that aren’t typical. It was a reposado tequila shaken with lime juice, fresh cantaloupe juice, cinnamon syrup and a little bit of Greek yogurt garnished with grated cinnamon. Both were the drinks I made during the market challenge.
Breakthru: Did you have a favorite spirit from the competition? Was there anything in particular that you liked working with?
Egor: I like a lot of Diageo spirits. They’re all really good quality. There’s nothing to complain about; they’re great products. My favorite out of the whole portfolio has always been Tanqueray 10. I think there’s no better gin in the world than Tanqueray 10.
Breakthru: Were there any moments in particular that stuck out in your mind from the competition or the comradery with other bartenders? Any memories that you will carry with you?
Egor: It was interesting to observe how other people react to different things. It was interesting to observe how other people prepare themselves, how they handle those nerve-wracking moments. I definitely could see that some people have their own style of being on their own concentrating. Some people were chill and relaxed and that’s how they took the pressure off. Overall, I think everybody was friendly. I knew most of the people from before. It was good seeing everybody. People I made friends with have stayed in touch after the competition.
Breakthru: What types of drinks or types of spirits have been popular with your customers this past year?
Egor: I think definitely gin. Gin is just kicking in right now. When I put an Aviation on the menu, we sold more in five days than probably the entire year. It’s like when people see gin on a menu, they just go for it a lot. I definitely see tequila being popular right now. I’m not sure if that was just a summer trend or overall but I think people are getting into understanding tequila better than just being a shooter or a shot kind of liquor. I think vodka is coming back too. There was some time when it was not cool to drink vodka. I think bartenders are changing their attitude towards this spirit and understanding that it’s still important. There’s still people who enjoy that clean flavor profile. You can enhance that using any ingredient that you want it to pick up the flavor of.
Breakthu: Do you think you’ll be back at World Class in 2017?
Egor: If you asked me if I would do this competition again, I would say despite all the sadness of not winning it, I definitely became a better person, a more knowledgeable person. I learned a ton from just preparing myself for the stuff I’ve never dealt with before. That’s the main idea of this competition I think. It’s not just about making one cocktail. It’s about being able to educate yourself on something new and own that, rather than just one certain recipe of a drink. I definitely will be back.
This interview has been edited and condensed.