JAMES GRANT BURST INTO TEARS AFTER WINNING the Diageo World Class Global Finals last summer. The emotional release wasn’t all that unusual, considering it’s the biggest bartending competition on the planet.
The typically poised Edmontonian, who competes, wearing velvet tuxedos and a crooked grin under his suave moustache, had already earned a bittersweet claim to fame for trying and crying at five consecutive Canadian finals, eventually conquering the last one. Which makes him the most tenacious World Class competitor in the country — and the tears more poignant.
Eight months later, sitting in Vancouver’s Lobby Lounge, savouring his victory and a 50/50 Tanqueray No. Ten Martini, Grant recalls his first sorry attempt, at the 2017 National Finals. After losing, and bawling, he was taken aside by judge Jenner Cormier. “Don’t let this define you,” the 2013 Canadian champion advised, giving him a hug.
“That small gesture of kindness and hospitality changed my life,” Grant says. “Instead of giving up, I went back and kept improving year after year. I made all these World Class connections that have defined my career. Now I’ve won this competition and I still don’t know how far it’s going to take me.”
For the time being, he is working at Edmonton’s Little Hong Kong, a 16-seat speakeasy behind Baijiu, where he started five years ago. His north star, since then, has been to apply a hospitalityfirst style of bartending to everything he does.
Hospitality comes naturally to Grant, a former funeral director — “the most depressing party planner in existence,” he notes. He “fell into” bartending, at a brewpub in London, England, after failing to land a job in corporate communications.
“What I’ve come to realize is that in all these jobs…you’re engaging with people. You’re identifying what they need in that particular moment and giving them an experience that fits those needs.”
At Little Hong Kong, where Grant runs a menu-free cocktail program, his ability to treat guests with the upmost respect has been finely honed. “Every night, I ask myself, ‘Am I giving this person a throwaway whiskey sour or am I really listening to what they want?’ When I can say, ‘This drink is made specifically for you based on the conversation we just had, based on your reactions to other drinks or based what I’ve overheard you talking about with your friends,’ that person feels really seen, really listened to and special.”
Establishing that connection with the World Class Global judges was trickier last year. They were in London. He was in Toronto, projected onto the stage by video and dependent on avatar bartenders who mixed his drinks, under timed conditions, according to his precise instructions. Some of his ingredients were lost by a courier company and almost didn’t make it.
Going into the final speedrack challenge, A Tale of Two Malts, he still hadn’t won a single match.
“The pressure couldn’t get any higher,” he said to the judges of that contest — all industry legends — while pouring a heartfelt story about his passion for bartending into four different cocktails.
“But at the end of the day, what always guides you is the understanding that you get the greatest privilege of all — providing comfort to individuals. And that commitment to caring for others and welcoming them has always been the lighthouse that has carried me forward in this industry,” he continued, mixing the toughest round of his life in 5.04 minutes.
It was the one that clinched it and catapulted James Grant straight to the top as the World Class 2021 Global — and now, Canada’s Best — Bartender of the Year.
Photos by Magic Hour Creative