The Cayman Islands has proved itself as a worldwide force to be reckoned with when it comes to the art of bartending, coming first in a section and well placed overall, in the finals of the first ever Ketel One World Class Cocktail Competition, held in London in the summer. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull reports.
Held at the ultra glam, chicest of chic Andaz hotel in London’s Liverpool Street, the finals of the Ketel One World Class Cocktail Competition were held in July to find the world’s best bartender. Eighteen of the best bartenders from all over the world joined together with a whole host of well-known experts from the bartending and culinary worlds acting as judges to finalists, who were battling it out for the coveted first place.
Cayman’s own top bartender, the Westin Casuarina’s Khi Leonard, represented the Cayman Islands after having beaten stiff competition at home. Organised by Ketel One’s local distributor on-island, Jacques Scott, the competition to find a representative for the Cayman Islands was a tough one that involved seminars with the Caribbean’s Diageo (owners of Ketel One) representative Josué Merced-Reyes, as well as master mixologists from around the world, on hand to teach local bartenders the intricacies of the art as well as the history of the brand. Eventually a competition was held for judges to assess the skills, techniques, creativity, knowledge and flair of local bartenders.
Khi, a 12 year veteran of the culinary industry having worked as a chef, restaurant manager and bartender in the UK, aboard cruise lines and finally here in Cayman, came up trumps with his mastery of the bartending arts.
Taking on board the judges’ desire for the local bartenders to use local ingredients wherever possible, Khi displayed immense creativity by undertaking painstaking research on native flora of the islands in the weeks leading up to the local competition.
He states: “I found that there was actually very little native flora to the Cayman Islands. Frangipani is one such native plant, so I waiting until nighttime when the flower blooms and picked some of the sweet smelling plant. I then dried the flowers, made a tea which I then turned into a syrup which I mixed with Ketel One vodka to create a signature cocktail which I called a Fond Farewell.”
The judges were so impressed by Khi’s ability that he found himself just days later on a plane bound for London as the official representative of the Cayman Islands.
Owned by Diageo, Ketel One is but one of a list of reserve brands that sponsored the London finals. The other reserve brands include Ciroc Vodka, Don Julio Tequila, Zacapa Rum, Tanqueray No. Ten Gin and Johnnie Walker Whisky and thus these brands all featured highly in the four-day competition which was to follow.
Khi says he hit the ground running: “Unfortunately my luggage did not arrive with me, including all my bartending tools, so I ran to the nearest shop to get properly clothed and equipped!”
He says the event was surrounded by huge excitement, pomp and circumstance, with some contestants bringing along their own entourage and interpreters.
Khi says: “The competition is a big deal in many countries. For example, the Australian contestant beat 2,500 other bartenders to reach the final, while other contestants were filming the entire event for a television show. The Korean contestant was sponsored by the Korean government. And then there was just me!”
Up for the challenge
An intense opening night included the first of six challenges to tax the competitors in all areas of bartending. The first was a ritual and theatre round, for which Japan’s Mari Kamata won, dressing up in full Geisha costume.
Next came a speed challenge. Split into groups of three, the bartenders were required to produce a round of six drinks from scratch in ten minutes. Author of the Craft of the Cocktail, Dale DeGroff, considered the father of the US cocktail revolution judged.
Khi states: “This was tough, not because the drinks were difficult to make but because I like to chat and I realised that while I was chatting to the judge the clock was still ticking by!”
The bartenders were up and running first thing the following morning undertaking the third test, a Classic cocktail challenge. For this challenge the bartenders had each rehearsed twelve classic cocktails and were then again divided into groups of three and each given three cocktails to make. The judge for this round was Simon Difford, a renowned cocktail aficionado who produces Difford’s Guide, the cocktail bible, and the competition took place in his private bar, The Cabinet Room.
Khi says the competition for this round, which he won, was incredibly tough: “You basically had the best of the best – Felix Hartmann from the UAE and Noach Van Damm from Belgium. Each went on to win a challenge.”
Khi was asked to make a Bloody Mary, a Mulatto daiquiri and a Silk Stocking. His Bloody Mary in particular blew the judge away. Difford said: “Bloody Mary is a cocktail that I just cannot make. Khi added some olive brine which I had not seen before which was fantastic.”
Khi added Worcester Sauce, Tabasco, black pepper, a dash of horseradish for pungency to the Ciroc Vodka and tomato juice and says: “I’ve always been a fan of Bloody Marys but always felt that there was something missing. I find that adding just a dash of olive brine really opens up the flavours, in particular, the saltiness, which hits the palate really well.”
The day was completed with a Ketel One party at which the judges took turns to create cocktails themselves.
The third day began with a canapé matching challenge, judged by cocktail maestro Salvatore Calabrese, who was looking for the bartenders’ ability to choose two canapés from a selection of six and match them with a cocktail of their creation. The final test was cocktail mastery.
Cayman now on the cocktail map
On day four the individual challenge winners were announced, at which point Dale DeGroff said that he was delighted to see so many individuals from countries where cocktails had not always been a tradition, but now the tradition was growing exponentially. Khi says he was stunned to learn that he had won the Classic competition.
“Considering how tough the competition was this was certainly an achievement,” he says.
Greece’s Aristotelis Papadopoulos was crowned the overall winner of the competition by the well-known British chef, Marco Pierre White. While other placings were not formally named, Khi has it on good authority that he was highly placed as a runner up.
“The entire experience has been absolutely brilliant,” he says. “I’m still on a cloud. But soon I’ll have to come down because I want to start preparing for next year’s competition!”
Catch next month’s Journal for some of Khi’s favourite cocktails that you can prepare at home.