Diageo Reserve World Class, the world’s largest mixology competition that began in 2009 as a bartending training programme, includes the Cayman Islands for the first time in 2013. As it has in other places around the world, World Class is elevating the craft of cocktail making in Cayman to new heights.
Not all that many years ago, it was hard to find a good cocktail in the Cayman Islands. There were the tourist favourites – piña coladas, rum punches, yellow birds and mudslides – and there were the basics – rum and coke, vodka or gin and tonic, scotch and soda – but not a lot more. Some bars here tried to cater to the martini-that-wasn’t-really-a-martini craze, but even that resulted in some rather uninspired cocktails.
However, with the launch over the past decade of premium brands across most spirit categories, including vodka, gin, rum, tequila and scotch, the demand for better cocktails has increased.
In 2009, Diageo, the world’s largest producer of spirits, established Diageo Reserve World Class, a competition it hoped would raise awareness of its premium spirit brands, elevate the craft of bartending and highlight the cocktail culture trend. World Class exceeded expectations and is now one of premier cocktail competitions around the globe, with bartenders from some 50 countries participating.
For the first time in 2013, the Cayman Islands will participate in the competition and things got rolling in late January with the first of three preliminary “waves” of competition.
The three preliminary waves of Cayman’s World Class competition all have particular themes reflecting key cocktail trends, with the first wave having a theme of “Retro Chic”. This cocktail trend involves taking the classic cocktails of the 50s and 60s – and sometimes even earlier than that – and giving them modern interpretations.
Diageo brand ambassador Paulo Figueiredo and Reserve Customer Marketing Manager Simon Gilbert came to Grand Cayman to help launch World Class here. On 28 January, the two ambassadors had lunch at the Cracked Conch Restaurant in West Bay to discuss World Class and the Retro Chic trend.
“We have great classics to work with; however, today we also have new techniques and better ingredients… which allow us to perfect and build on them further,” Figueiredo explained. “Retro Chic is about looking at the classic recipes and seeing what can be done better. It’s about elevating a classic to perfection with a modern style.”
To demonstrate Retro Chic, Figueiredo started by making a couple of cocktails, including modern versions of the Clover Club and the Breakfast Martini. The traditional Clover Club was made with gin, but instead Figueiredo used Ketel One Vodka, the Diageo Reserve Brand that would be used for the first wave of the World Class competition. In addition, instead of just fresh lemon juice – as called for in the classic Clover Club – Figueiredo used both fresh lemon and lime juice and he substituted raspberry syrup in the classic recipe with fresh pomegranate juice. He did, however, top the egg white foam cap on the cocktail with a fresh raspberry, placed carefully right in the middle.
Figueiredo said one of the keys to Retro Chic was taking a classic cocktail and looking for simple ways of making it better while still preserving the elements that made it classic in the first place.
“The easiest way to win a competition is don’t complicate it,” he said. “A lot of people win competitions by just taking an old recipe and changing one thing.”
One common error he sees in some budding mixologists is the tendency of putting in too many ingredients.
“A good cocktail shouldn’t be over-complicated,” he said. “Some people will create a cocktail with seven or more ingredients, but you don’t taste them in the mouth. You should never go with more than five ingredients… and make sure the cocktail is an experience in the mouth.”
Before jumping right into the competition, Figueiredo and Gilbert hosted an introduction and training session for the interested participants at Karoo on 29 January and then a workshop at Taikun restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman on 30 January.
The sessions included information about the Diageo product, Ketel One, which was the feature spirit in the first wave of the competition.
Part of the workshop included a tasting of several vodkas so that the bartenders could taste and smell the differences. Three vodkas were tasted, including Ketel One, Grey Goose and Absolut during the workshop. Tasters were told to compare fragrance, then flavour, the feel and finally the finish.
“Unlike tasting wine, vodka has to be carefully brought up to the nose, to allow it to adapt,” Figueiredo said of how to smell the spirit.
One important Diageo initiative – that of promoting responsible drinking – has also become a part of the World Class competition. Gilbert talked about the bartender’s role in promoting responsible drinking by making cocktails that aren’t overly alcoholic.
“Responsible drinking starts with responsible serving,” he said.
The intensity of the training session and the knowledge of what it would take to win the competition dissuaded a couple of participants from moving on into the competition, but 16 local bartenders took up the challenge.
The first wave of the World Class competition in Cayman took place on 31 January at Taikun.
Each of the competitors, who all worked at bars and restaurants on Grand Cayman, had four minutes to create one cocktail in the Retro Chic style for the judges to taste. In addition to Figueiredo and Gilbert, Findlay Wilson, Jacques Scott’s sales & marketing manager (Liquor and Beer) served as a judge.
Many of the competitors were visibly nervous.
“This is quite a big deal and I think they’ve realised that over the past two days,” explained Jo Austin, the Jacques Scott representative in charge of the local World Class competition coordination.
The competitors were judged on six categories including presentation, creativity, technical skills, taste and balance, expression of the spirit and responsible drinking.
In the end, Ruben Pattipeilohy from The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman won the first wave with his modern take on the classic Manhattan cocktail, which he called the Madhattan. The Manhattan is traditionally made with rye or bourbon whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, but Pattipeilohy made his Retro Chic version with Ketel One vodka, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, a homemade red syrup and a grapefruit foam topping, garnished with orange zest and served in a rock glass.
The win in the first wave assures Pattipeilohy a spot in the Cayman Finals on 1 May.
While the winners of each of the three waves get automatic spots in the finals, other competitors can earn spots in the finals in a variety of ways. Points are awarded for attendance in each of the waves and for placing in each of the competitions. Bartenders at establishments that create special World Class Reserve cocktail menus, or menu inserts, or which offer a featured World Class Reserve Cocktail, also earn points.
The second wave, which has the theme “Hollywood, Bollywood, Hong Kong” takes place 6-7 March and the third wave, with the theme “Tropical Journey” happens on 3-4 April. Both of those waves take place at Taikun.
The top two establishments that improve their sales of Diageo Reserve Brands – which, in addition to Ketel One vodkas, include Zacapa 23 rum; Johnnie Walker Blue, Gold or Platinum whisky; Tanqueray 10 gin; and Ciroc vodka will also get a bartender in the 1 May final, which will occur at a venue to be announced.
The winner of the Cayman final will advance to the global final, but not before an all-expenses-paid trip to Pamana for further training.
The Diageo Reserve World Class global final has become known for some fantastic exotic locations, including Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, last year.
This year, the global finals will be held on the boutique luxury cruise liner, the Azamara Journey, from 4 – 9 July.
While the competition between the best bartenders from 50 different countries takes place, the luxury liner will sail from Nice along the French Riviera and make stops at some of Mediterranean’s most glamorous destinations like Monte Carlo, St. Tropez, Ibiza and Barcelona. At stake will be the coveted Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year title, as well as a $100,000 cash prize.
“This is one of the most prestigious cocktail competitions in the world, which is changing the face of mixology,” Gilbert, said. “Winners are turned into superstars. This really is a competition, which can change your life.”