When I first read on social media that two bartenders currently working in Fort Wayne had made the US Midwest regionals (out of 12 for the whole region) for the World Class bartending competition put on by the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG), the significance wasn’t lost on me. Oh yeah, did I also mention they both work at the same bar (Wine Down)? Add to that the fact that a third regional participant used to work at the same bar and that’s some pretty heavy duty bartending prowess coming out of 301 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Trevor Scovel and Carl Sparks were nice enough to take time out of their suddenly even busier schedules to answer a few questions for me as they prep for the World Class Midwest regionals. While my questions were of the general nature, their detailed responses exuded a real passion for their craft, the bar that employs them and the city they work in. The Fort Wayne community should be proud to have them.
On how they got started in the industry and their current roles at Wine Down
“I feel like my path to where I’m at was a long one. I’ve been in the industry for about 5 years officially. I started really getting into bartending at a young age. Before I could drink, I remember practicing flair and reading about recipes. I could tell I just enjoyed being host. At a young age I got laid off from a job and had a friend tell me to go to bartending school, which anyone will tell you isn’t worth it, and most ‘Bartending Schools’ aren’t. I left that school at 22 years old and realized it really didn’t prepare me much so I continued to pursue knowledge when I could. I was a bourbon nut and eventually found myself working at a bourbon bar trying to build their program. It was fun but I stayed in school working on a future in IT and Electrical Engineering. I eventually got a job in that field and just bartended on the weekends. There was still something about coming into a restaurant on a Friday night that I loved. It was a volume shot style bar and I think that’s a valuable rite of passage for everyone that’s a career bartender. Eventually, I thought maybe it was time to put bartending behind me. I wanted more out of it but no bar in Fort Wayne was doing anything with cocktails (not properly) and I didn’t know of the vast community I hadn’t even met yet. I got the call about Wine Down soon after that and it was what I had always been looking for. I was lucky the owners put 100% of their faith into me and let me take the program where I wanted it.
Now it’s been 3 years here. I am the Beverage Director and GM. I work with the owner, Gary Skeel, daily and basically between the two of us and our incredible team, we do it all. My bar team consists of myself, head bartender Carl Sparks, Sam Alberston (Cerulean, Oak & Alley) and Raj Shukla.
I think the most exciting thing we do is we try to build everyone on the team up. Even down to every position in the restaurant, we haven’t had anyone quit for any reason other than taking a bigger job in the industry. We’re really proud of that.
The fun thing about working around so many dedicated people is everyone is consistently pushing themselves to be better.”
“I’ve been in the hospitality industry for about 3 years now I believe, though it certainly feels longer. My current position is Head Bartender at Wine Down and Sidecar. The former is a modern bar/restaurant that takes inspiration from French architecture and environs. We currently curate a cocktail menu that typically ranges from about 12-20 of our own creations rotating with the culinary season, the entire lexicon of classics, and a spirits menu that focuses on whiskey (which is nearing around the 200 number for that category alone). Sidecar is a very traditional style tiki bar located outside the premise but still adjacent the Harrison building.”
On World Class, how they became involved in the competition and how they qualified and advanced
“I first saw World Class in 2016. It’s put on by the USBG. It’s held in such high regard because of the high standards of competitors. The integrity of the entire competition is unmatched by anything else in our industry beyond IBA Global. World Class is known not just to challenge your ability to make a good balanced cocktail but to force your creativity in unique challenges. It’s a global competition and you get judged by the biggest names in the industry. When I went to the Midwest regional conference in 2016, I had some friends competing and I got a chance to see some of them preparing and I saw just how intense it was. These are people I look up to and seeing them hitting this next level piqued my interest. Regionals is just the first step. You apply with a recipe and some essay questions. Your drink is blind judged, essays scored and you are broken into 5 groups of 12 competitors across the country. They get thousands of applications so to make it to top 12, it’s a big deal. First year I competed (2017) I didn’t really think it was much, but once you’re there and you see all that goes into it, you quickly see this isn’t an ordinary competition.”
“The World Class competition is sort of seen as the Olympics for serious bartenders. It’s presented by Diageo, and in so much gains the capacity to work with a very large and diverse spirits portfolio. It’s difficult to put in to words exactly what a competition of this magnitude means to industry professionals, but as of right now it’s the ultimate trophy. More than anything else, you’re judged by industry professionals who are either pioneers themselves or at the forefront of the culinary movement and that alone lends it an incredible amount of gravitas over other competitions. I’ve known about it since my early days of bartending, but my first actual experience with it was last year watching Trevor prepare and getting to meet the competitors and judges while we were attending the USBG Regional Conference in Kansas City.”
On the impact of two bartenders not just from Ft. Wayne but from the same bar making Midwest regionals and what that says about the scene at Wine Down and Ft. Wayne in general
“12 individuals for the Midwest and 60 in the nation. Only 15 (3 from each region) will move on to nationals. There will be 1 national winner that moves on to represent the US in the Global Finals in Berlin. In the 6 or 7 years we’ve been doing it, the US has only won once so the fact that I get a shot at that spot, or that Wine Down could be in that spot light, that Fort Wayne could be in that light, I love it. I really love it. I remember when Shelby (Minnix, the third bartender from Wine Down who qualified for Regionals) was so ready to quit bartending, when Carl was still pursuing the FBI and when I was going to just be in engineering. Now we’ve all so confidently found our careers in life. Last year they were so big in helping me do world class. I was the first in Fort Wayne and I was scared. They helped me prep, went with me and now to watch them get to do it – it’s amazing. I hope it inspires someone to keep in this industry or to see bartending as a viable career.
Hospitality can give you one of the best lives ever and now is a great time to get into it. Fort Wayne especially needs good bartenders – bartenders that see it as something bigger, something more, that want to push themselves to be more, that love people or that want to elevate the experience people are used to. I’m tired of people saying ‘Well, it’s Fort Wayne’ or that serious bartenders have to go to NYC or SF. Last year, another major competition, MIB, the national winner was out of Columbus. The only global US World Class winner (Charles Joly) is from Chicago. The Midwest is a force to be reckoned with. Fort Wayne is a city with some major potential. We aren’t just some dweeby mixologists trying to put more ingredients in drinks. We’re trying to change the world, or at least ours, one guest at a time.”
“Fort Wayne is in a precarious place currently. There are epicenters for culinary professionalism, but they need more support from the community to thrive. There is a core group of people that want to see Fort Wayne achieve a great food and beverage scene, but they can’t do it alone. Wine Down’s ownership and staff has always and will always pride themselves on not yielding to the conventional and pushing the envelope when it comes to current culinary and beverage trends. This is why it has been able to produce programs and individuals that see themselves as professionals acting out a high art, making people care about what they eat and drink again. It’s an uphill battle though in this city, when there is a serious lack of support in both the community and the journalism regarding it.
I see more articles concerning what chain is going where than I do about James Beard nominated/awarded Chefs and their protegees; or the achievements of beverage programs able to be the only establishment fielding multiple competitors in the world’s most prestigious showdown.
I think that Fort Wayne has the potential to be absolutely breathtaking as it grows so rapidly before our eyes, but things have to change in a hurry.”