National champion bartender Justin Park pores over the details.
By Lisa Yamada-Son
“I’m just happy to be here,” Justin Park remembers gushing to Julio Cabrera, the rock-star Miami bartender who had recently graced the cover of GQ magazine. Park, the Honolulu-born-and-raised bar manager of Chinatown’s The Manifest, had just faced 15 of the nation’s top bartenders. And it boiled down to this, he says, imitating the announcer: “The winner of the United States Bartending Guild’s Shake It Up Competition, earning the right to represent the United States in the USBG World Cocktail Championship”—“it’s like the World Cup of cocktails,” interjects Park into his story—“is Justin Park!” And the crowd goes wild.
Two weeks after returning from cocktail’s largest national stage, which took place this past March, Park is still glowing like a kid in a candy store. After sweeping both technical and overall categories, an unprecedented feat, Park is now officially the best bartender in the nation, and soon, quite possibly, the world. The Las Vegas contest served as a qualifier for the World Cocktail Championship 2014, which takes place this September in South Africa and will feature 60 of the world’s best bar men and women vying for global cocktail supremacy. Park will be there, representing Hawai‘i- “from this little bar to the world,” he says.
Rumblings of Park’s ascent first began in 2012, when he began crushing local competitions including Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender Invitational, the Bacardi Oakheart Iron Bartender, and Don the Beachcomber’s Mai Tai Mix-Off. His imaginative cocktail creations and impassioned showmanship won the hearts and taste buds of the judges and general public alike. But, as Park would learn while competing in Portland at the USBG for Campari’s Cocktail aperitivo cocktail contest, it wasn’t just about crafting a good drink, but how one creates it. “Everyone always asks me what drink I made, but it wasn’t just that,” he says. “Taste is so relative, but what’s not relative? The technique … how I made it, how I presented myself, how I presented the drink, how it tasted.”
Watching Park create, whether in a competition or behind the bar at The Manifest, it’s clear he loves what he does, that boyish grin never leaving his face.
He would go on to win the Campari event, earning one of 78 spots with a chance to compete in Shake It Up. But his acceptance wasn’t guaranteed yet. “The reason why I feel I should be chosen,” Park recalls writing in his application essay for the competition, “is because I’ve succeeded at a national level coming from a small market due to my own passion and desire for it. My market is so small, there’s not major bartenders I can look up to and find knowledge from—I have to seek it out. So being an ambassador for the USA and the USBG, that’s a quality you can’t teach somebody.” Needless to say, he was one of the 15 accepted.
Park’s drink for Shake It Up featured Wild Turkey 101 as a base, mixed with yellow chartreuse, apple brandy, blackberry-muddled honey, an egg white, and a bit of lemon juice, topped with a spray of angostura bitters and apple slices cut to look like a wing. “The category I got was ‘fancy cocktail,’ which can be anything,” he says. “Personally, when I think fancy cocktail, I think of how it can wow visually, because the taste of a drink should always be fancy.” Park practiced the complex drink repeatedly until he knew exactly where each tool would be placed after he finished using it.
Personally, when I think fancy cocktail, I think of how it can wow visually, because the taste of a drink should always be fancy.
This work ethic and dedication to perfection is much of what has made The Manifest, known for its large whiskey selection and imaginative drinks, a favorite work/play area for both artists and entrepreneurs alike. “I read and practice, then read some more and practice some more,” he says. “It’s like going to school, learning and slowly building, then when you get an idea of what ingredients go together, you start creating.”
Watching Park create, whether in a competition or behind the bar at The Manifest, it’s clear he loves what he does, that boyish grin never leaving his face. Not just a maker of cocktails, Park is an artist. Some may roll their eyes at this, but like any artist, Park simply can’t stop playing with ideas, discovering something new to make or do. Whether he’s crafting handmade leather goods and aprons, like the ones his bar staff dons, or paintings using bitters as his color pop, Park’s creativity does not end at the bottom of a glass—albeit a carefully selected, intricately etched one—but extends into every facet of his life.
Find Justin Park behind the bar at The Manifest, located at 32 N. Hotel St. For more information, visit manifesthawaii.com.