Three months of intense competitions will come to a close at Grand Old House on 2 May as some of the Island’s best bartenders battle it out for a chance to represent Cayman in the Diageo Reserve World Class global final aboard a luxury cruise ship sailing along the French Riviera. At the Third Wave of preliminary rounds, the competitors showed they were ready for the Cayman finals as they made amazing cocktails using Zacapa 23 rum.
Part of the reason Diageo, the world’s largest producer of spirits, established the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition in 2009 was to raise awareness of its premium spirit brands and to highlight the trending cocktail culture. But Diageo also hoped the competition would elevate the craft of bartending around the world.
Taking place in the Cayman Islands for the first time this year, World Class has already seen the participants improve in many aspects of bartending in just three short months. That fact was highlighted by the bartenders’ performances in the Third Wave of the competition, called Tropical Journey, which was held Wednesday 24 April at Taikun Restaurant.
Mario Navarro, the global brand ambassador for Zacapa rum – the featured spirit in the Third Wave of the competition – attended and served as one of the judges for the competition and he was very impressed with the quality of Cayman’s participating bartenders.
“Whichever one of you advances to the global final, you’ll be able to compete very well against the world’s best bartenders,” he said.
Joining Navarro for the trip to Cayman was bartender Stephon Scott, who has represented Trinidad & Tobago in the global finals the past two years. Scott, who has been to many of the ‘Tropical Journey’ competition waves in the Caribbean region, thought Cayman’s bartenders, as a group, performed better than anywhere else he’s been.
“And that includes my own country, Trinidad & Tobago,” he said. “There you can pick out three or four bartenders who really do it well, but here, everyone was really good.”
Tasting, training and dinner
As has happened with every World Class wave in Cayman, a training session was held the day before the competition to familiarise the participating bartenders with the brand, how it should be used in cocktails, and with the Diageo World Class competition in general.
However, for this wave, Jacques Scott – which has hosted the World Class event as the distributor of the Diageo brands in Cayman – created some events around Zacapa rum that could be enjoyed by customers.
On Monday 22 April, a Zacapa rum tasting was held in the tasting room at Jacques Scott’s store on North Sound Road. The following evening, the Brasserie Restaurant hosted a dinner called ‘Ron Zacapa & Cigars Under the Stars’ along side its chef’s garden.
Diageo guests Navarro and Scott, along with several representatives of Jacques Scott, were both on hand at the dinner to discuss Zacapa rum during the evening. Also at the dinner was Valerio Carnale of La Casa del Habano, which provided the cigars for after dinner.
Guests had welcome cocktails made with Zacapa 15, then sipped Zacapa 23 with dessert and finally had a shot of the super premium Zacapa XO with their cigars.
Brasserie Executive Chef Joe Mizzoni used Zacapa rum in two of his dishes for the dinner, which was served family style like the other of the restaurant’s harvest dinners. The undisputed star course of the evening was fresh swordfish caught by the Brasserie’s fishing boats and then masterfully prepared by Mizzoni with a light glaze made with early-season local mangoes and local hot peppers.
Before the dinner, Navarro spoke a little about Zacapa rum, which is made in Guatemala and then aged in the Central American country’s mountains at an altitude of over than 7,500 feet. The mountain climate, the thinner mountain air and lower atmospheric pressure at that altitude all help to infuse Zacapa rum with the barrel flavours.
Zacapa 23 uses three different kinds of oak barrels to age the rum – previously used oak barrels that contained Jack Daniels American whiskey, sherry and Pedro Ximenez wines. Zacapa XO also uses Cognac barrels for ageing.
Zacapa uses a maturation process called the Solera system, which was initially developed in Spain as a way of ageing sherry. The Solera system blends rums of different ages into barrels using a defined method that not only keeps the rums consistent year after year, but it also imparts qualities that wins Zacapa many international rum awards.
“The difference with Zacapa rum is its smoothness, complexity and balance,” said Navarro. He added that many women, even those who don’t particularly like rum, like Zacapa because it has a soft, almost feminine quality. He said that wasn’t surprising because Zacapa’s master blender for the past 20 years has been a woman, Lorena Vásquez.
Navarro explained that the number on a Zacapa bottle, like the ‘23’ in Zacapa 23, means that the oldest rum in the bottle is 23 years old. He noted that the youngest rum in Zacapa 23 is six years old. However, because of the way the Solera system works, rums in between the youngest and oldest also become part of the blends.
“Half of the product is six years old, the rest is seven years or older,” he said. “About 15 per cent is 23 years old.”
For the Third Wave of the World Class competition, the bartenders uses Zacapa 23 in their cocktails.
Although Zacapa 23 is considered a premium sipping rum and one that could be drunk neat or with an ice cube, Navarro said a decision was made to promote it as a premium cocktail ingredient.
“We had a long internal discussion within the company about that,” he said. “In the end, Lorena took the right decision and said ‘we need to support the bartenders’.”
One of the factors that influenced that decision was the fact that Cognac, the fine French brandy that was traditionally drunk neat, was losing market share and bartenders started using that in cocktails.
“We needed to adapt,” Navarro said.
Because rum in general and Zacapa rum specifically has a sweet profile, the participating World Class bartenders were told that they needed to balance their cocktails with acidity, which in most cases meant fresh citrus juices of some sort.
Before the competition began, Navarro told the competitors to enjoy the experience and have fun. He also reminded the bartenders about the responsible serving initiative that is embedded in Diageo’s World Class competition. The key message to the bartenders is that responsible drinking starts with responsible serving.
“Diageo is promoting responsible drinking and I think that is important,” Navarro said. “Drinking cocktails is about a World Class experience. We want people to enjoy the moment; it’s not about getting drunk.”
Ten per cent of each contestant’s score in the competition came from how well they conveyed the message of responsible drinking and helped facilitate that by offering water and light snacks to help reduce the effects of alcohol.
The competition ended up being extremely close. Although the judges all agreed that Rum Point bartender Seggy Quizeo’s cocktail was the best tasting of them all, his score was only good enough to tie for second place with Grand Caymanian bartender Fernando Abalsamo – the winner of the Second Wave of the competition.
Taking first place and ending a string of second-place finishes in the wave was Agua Bartender Simon Crompton, who not only made a very tasty cocktail, but he scored high marks for his presentation, technique and product knowledge.
With the wave victory, Crompton joins Abalsamo and Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman bartender Ruben Pattipeilohy as automatic participants in the finals on 2 May at Grand Old House. Other ‘wild card’ competitors likely to compete in the finals include Billy Bones’ and O-bar’s Jono Firstbrook; The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s Andy Trattner; Decker’s Freya Palesch; and Agua’s Emmanuela Quesada.
The winner of the Cayman final will advance to the global final. At stake will be the coveted Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year title, a year of travelling as Diageo’s World Class ambassador, and a $100,000 cash prize to be used to start a bar business.