With two of four preliminary waves completed in the 2014 Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition, it is evident that Cayman’s bartenders are better prepared this year and that they’re making some seriously good cocktails. The second wave, themed Mediterranean Master, took place on Feb. 12 at Cracked Conch and involved cocktails using Ron Zacapa Centenario 23 and Ron Zacapa Centenario XO.
In 2013, when the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition came to the Cayman Islands for the first time, it was apparent many of Cayman’s bartenders were nervous about competing. There was trembling; there was stammering; there was spilling. By the time the three preliminary waves were complete, only six of the original 16 bartenders had the stamina – and the nerves – to compete in the Cayman finals last May.
What a difference a year makes.
After two waves of the 2014 competitions, the competing bartenders are giving impressive, confident performances, and more importantly, making some fabulous original cocktails.
Last year’s winner of the Cayman portion of the World Class competition, Simon Crompton of Agua Restaurant, showed his experience in January by winning the first wave that featured cocktails made with Ketel One Vodka.
The win automatically qualified Crompton for the Cayman finals in May, so he didn’t officially compete in the second wave. However, as a demonstration for the other bartenders, he made his Golden Elephant cocktail that he served in last year’s Global Finals aboard a luxury cruise ship in the Mediterranean.
With the talented Crompton out of the second wave, the competition was wide open for Cayman’s other bartenders in creating cocktails that featured Ron Zacapa rums.
As it does for every wave, Diageo sent a representative to lead a workshop on the featured spirit and to serve as one of the three judges during the competition. For the February wave, Diageo sent U.S. Lead Zacapa Ambassador Robert Pallone.
It wasn’t all that long ago that drinking a premium sipping rum like Zacapa 23 or Zacapa XO any way but neat or with a little ice would have been frowned upon. However, drinking rum that way doesn’t appeal to everyone. Perhaps because of its reputation as the drink of pirates and seamen, rum over the years gained a reputation as a rough drink for rough men. Indeed, early rums were probably just that.
With improvements to distillation and aging processes, as well as improvements to the quality of ingredients, rums today – and particularly premium rums – are much different than in years past, and sipping on good rum is much like sipping on good Cognac. Zacapa rums also make an excellent base for artisan cocktails.
“We are trying to embrace the cocktail culture,” says Pallone. “The way we look at it, as long as people are having fun…”
No one is suggesting consumers add Zacapa 23 or Zacapa XO to Coca-Cola or sweet fruit punch, but when mixed with quality ingredients, the resulting cocktail can transcend the usual rum cocktail experience.
Pallone said he thinks social media is helping to stimulate the growing market for premium rum and other premium spirits.
“People are definitely more aware of the products and of what they’re consuming,” he said. “We’re seeing the same thing with spirits that happened in the wine world about 20 years ago.”
Just as sommeliers have helped bring awareness to wines, mixologists are bringing the same kind of awareness in spirits and cocktails, said Pallone, adding that it has now become popular for restaurants to host dinners with pairings of spirits or cocktails the same way they host wine-pairing dinners.
“People are having a great time,” he said.
Professional mixologists are crafting very creative and elaborate cocktails at bars and restaurants these days, and consumers can do the same at home, especially since many mixologists’ recipes end up on the Internet. Besides having some of the basic tools of the trade, Pallone said, people should follow recipes exactly.
“I always say you have to look for balance in a cocktail, and I always tell people they really have to measure [the ingredients],” he said, noting that cocktail making is a lot like baking and all the top pastry chefs measure their ingredients precisely because the slightest proportion errors could throw off the whole recipe.
“The way to balance and consistency in a cocktail is by measuring.”
The other key to making good cocktails is using fresh ingredients, Pallone said.
“Especially when it comes to citrus, it makes all the difference,” he said, adding that bottled citrus juices just can’t compare in taste to fresh-squeezed juices.
Made in the small town of Zacapa in eastern Guatemala, the Ron Zacapa Centenario rum brand has become well known to rum aficionados over the past decade as it has garnered many accolades and international awards. There are several things that set Zacapa apart from most other rums. Rather than being made from molasses, Zacapa is made from fermented virgin sugar cane honey that comes from freshly squeezed sugar cane.
Like other rums, Zacapa rums are aged in used American whiskey oak barrels, but some of it is also aged in oak barrels that were previously used for Sherry and Pedro Ximenez wines.
Zacapa rums are aged using what is known as the Solera system, which was originally developed in Spain as a method for aging Sherry. This system blends rums of different ages in a defined and consistent way, where every drop passes through each type of oak barrel used, giving the rum complexity and consistency in taste year after year.
Zacapa 23 is a blend of rums that range in age from six to 23 years, while the Zacapa XO is a range of rums aged between six and 25 years, with an extra aging stage that uses French oak barrels that previously held Cognac.
The aging process for Zacapa rums takes place “above the clouds” at an altitude of 7,500 feet. The cooler mountain climate, the thinner mountain air and lower atmospheric pressure at that altitude all help the aging process and allow the rum to develop its complex flavors.
The workshop and competition
On Feb. 11, Pallone led a free workshop at the Cracked Conch restaurant about rum and the Zacapa brand for Cayman’s bartenders. He spoke on a number of topics, including a bit about the history of rum.
“Rum kind of shaped the world,” said Pallone, who presents a class on rum at Florida International University as part of its hospitality program.
“Rum is why the islands were colonized and rum was a big reason for the American Revolution,” he said, noting that the taxation by the British of molasses – the key ingredient in making rum – was one of the triggers for the war.
The day after the workshop, 11 of Cayman’s bartenders came back to compete in second wave of the World Class competition.
Pallone’s fellow judge, Findlay Wilson, was impressed with how calm the participants were and especially how good their cocktails tasted.
“I know it seems like I say this all the time, but the cocktails just keep getting better and better,” he said.
In the end, Crompton’s fellow bartender at Agua, Alex Palumbo, took first place in the wave with his cocktail called “Above the Clouds,” earning him an automatic spot in the Cayman finals.
Coming in second place was Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink’s bartender Cameron Welniak with his Zacapa 23 Bolero. Finishing in a tie for third were Lachlan Morris from the Royal Palms and Baptiste Wagner from Ortanique. The third wave of Cayman’s World Class competition will take place on March 26 and will feature Don Julio tequila as the cocktail spirit.