According to Orlando-based bartender Peter Hannah, professional musicians and those behind the bar have at least one thing in common: the need to constantly innovate. With every new album or drink menu comes the challenge to create something new.
For Hannah, who was raised in Liverpool, England, no artist epitomizes this spirit of creative self-reinvention better than the most famous native of his hometown, the late Beatles frontman John Lennon.
So it’s fitting that a cocktail Hannah created as a paean to the originality of Lennon’s career is the one that helped propel him to victory as the 2023 winner of the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation’s Most Imaginative Bartender (MIB) competition presented by Bombay Sapphire, which invites drink-makers across the United States to explore their creative and artistic passions both behind and outside of the bar.
Hannah’s winning drink, John’s Blend, is a riff on an Irish Coffee, built on the complex flavors of a gin base. Cacao syrup serves as a nod to a cocktail favored by Lennon, the Alexander, while a blend of spices and Assam tea captures the Beatle’s famous love of a classic British cuppa. Whipped cream topping brings silky texture, while a spray of lemon herb hydrosol amplifies the bright citrus aromatics of the Bombay Sapphire.
In creating the cocktail, Hannah was influenced by the Beatles’ progression from the maximalist masterpiece of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to the beautifully spare acoustic songs of the band’s eponymous record known as the White Album. In turn, he sought to surprise judges with a three-ingredient concoction that packed powerful depth into a hot gin drink—a style not often seen on cocktail competition stages.
“I feel like being creative is about doing different things, rather than just doing the same things again and again,” Hannah says.
He was one of 10 regional finalists who took part in the competition’s final round, which spanned three phases, in Miami. In the main cocktail challenge, bartenders presented an original Bombay Sapphire Gin cocktail that showcased their creativity and passions.
Taking cues from Miami’s vibrant bartending scene, another cocktail contest saw finalists creating sustainably sourced drinks inspired by the cantineros, a small sect of highly respected cocktail bartenders in Cuba.
The contenders also pitched judges on a Canvas Project: an undertaking or business idea centered around a personal creative pursuit that would have a positive impact on the bartending community.
For judge Valentino Longo, a previous winner of the competition, rejoining on the other side has been a reminder of what a powerful and intense experience MIB can be. “Just by applying to a cocktail competition, all of them were able to create something exceptional,” he says.
“It’s incredibly inspiring to see each of these bartenders’ Canvas [Projects],” says judge Taylor Barron, director of partnerships for the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, which hosts the event and provides mentorship to the finalists. “Getting to experience their passions as they presented was really impactful.”
Throughout the phases of the competition, one of those themes for Hannah was the celebration of differences: the aim to craft cocktails that break with convention and to further the idea that every place—city, town or neighborhood—has a unique cultural imprint. “In a post-COVID world, escapism plays such a big part in the bars that we like,” he says. “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to showcase different cultures and different movements or different people that exist within cities?”
At the heart of his pitch was the idea to create immersive pop-up bars built around the heritage of local communities. With the $5,000 grant he earned by winning the regional competition, Hannah launched his idea’s first iteration: a residency that celebrates the Nordic ancestry shared by many Central Floridians. By taking over a bar in Sanford, Florida, one day a week and serving drinks and snacks inspired by ancient Norwegian cuisine, Hannah was able to make back his initial investment by the time the final competition was held.
His plan for the $20,000 winning grant is to spread these residencies around the country. “The hope is that every time we do something, it’s kind of like a new Beatles record coming out.”
While Hannah was thrilled to take first place, the biggest benefits, for him, came from just participating in the competition. “The real win is the people you meet … and the fact that you can go out there and work your way into something that could be really impactful for you for the rest of your career,” says Hannah. “I wake up in the morning, and I’m just jazzed to get going.”
For those behind MIB, that feeling is exactly what the event is meant to cultivate. “Hospitality people are always giving, giving, giving, and a lot of times they don’t reinvest in themselves and their passions,” says Ryan Wainwright, the North American brand ambassador for Bombay Sapphire. “The whole point of this competition is to remind them, you are where you are because of your passions.”
Looking ahead, Hannah plans to take a few days off to reflect on the next steps for his residency program, maybe while camping out under the stars. But in the short term, it’s back to work. A few days after his big win, Hannah was back behind the bar at his regular post in Orlando. “That’s show business, baby!” he laughs.