The second wave of the 2013 Diageo World Cocktail Competition in the Cayman Islands took place at Taikun Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman on 6-7 March, but before that, Johnnie Walker Brand Ambassador Arturo Savage spoke about his favourite subject to an invited group of guests at a dinner and whisky tasting at Luca.
When considering spirits for cocktails, Scotch whisky is not the one that immediately jumps to mind. However, as participants and judges in the Diageo World Class Cocktail Competition in the Cayman Islands learned the first week of March, maybe it should.
The World Class Cocktail Competition in the Cayman Islands began in January and involves three preliminary ‘waves’ before the 2 May finals. Each wave has a particular theme, showcases a specific spirit and starts with a workshop that teaches bartenders about the spirit and a particular Diageo brand.
The first wave in January focused on vodka and the Ketel One brand and had the theme ‘Retro Chic’, meaning bartenders were asked to create a cocktail that was a modern twist on a classic.
The second wave focused on Scotch whisky and the Diageo brand Johnnie Walker and had a theme of Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong, in which bartenders were asked to introduce entertainment in the form of ritual and theatre into the process of making and serving their cocktail.
For each wave of the World Class competition, one of the Diageo brand ambassadors visits Cayman. For the second wave, Johnnie Walker regional brand ambassador Arturo Savage visited Cayman.
Before commencing the two-day competition, Savage was the speaker at a dinner and Scotch whisky tasting for invited guests at Luca.
To demonstrate that Scotch is more versatile than some people think, guests were greeted with a simple cocktail of Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve poured over crushed ice and served with a wedge of orange.
“Gold Label is made for cocktails,” said Savage. “It’s a strong spirit, but easy to drink.”
Once the guests sat down for dinner, Savage presided over a tasting of three very different Diageo single malt whisky brands from various areas of Scotland.
Clyneslish, from the Sutherland area of the Northern Highlands, is aged in oak casks that previously aged bourbon, displayed notes of honey, citrus, coconut and almond and a somewhat sweet finish. Glen Ord, also from the Highlands region, is aged in oak casks that previously aged Sherry, giving it notes of cherry, pine and raisins and, because of the influence of some French oak, the slight aroma of burnt rubber. Then the single malt CaolIla from the Islay region was tasted. This highly phenolic whisky had a medicinal smell like the dentist’s office, but was smooth, with light smokiness and a long finish.
The distinctive single malts were tasted to serve as baseline against the blended Scotch of Johnnie Walker, which incorporates a variety whiskies to give a more expansive taste profile, one that Savage said goes from fruitiness to smoke.
Guests then tried Johnnie Walker Blue, the brand’s most expensive blend, even though it is not an aged whisky. Savage noted that blend gave Blue both smokiness and fruitiness, with a powerful structure and big aroma.
“Blending was created to give whisky more drinkability; more roundness and smoothness,” he said.
Savage, who drinks single malts as well as blends, said there was a time and place for both of them.
“It depends on the drinking occasion,” he said. “Blended Scotch is more social; single malts are more discerning.”
He explained that the base of Johnnie Walker’s blended whiskies was grain whisky.
“The art of blending is like painting,” he said. “When you paint, you have a white palette. When blending, grain whisky is your white palette.”
The grain whisky is then blended with a variety of single malts to give the desired tastes. Sometimes the blends can include dozens of whiskies and Johnnie Walker Black Label has whisky from around 40 different distilleries, Savage said.
After a dinner that was accompanied by wines, guests finished off the evening with a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue Label King George V special edition whisky, which Savage called “a masterpiece”.
In order to get the most out of the tasting experience, Savage instructed everyone to take a sip of ice water before sipping the whisky.
“You can pick up more flavour notes with a cold palate,” he said.
The King George V was a perfect example of a blend that had evolving aromas and flavours. The aromas started out smoky and then moved to that of fresh fruits and malt and finished with dried fruits and spices. On the palate, the whisky was rich and smooth and with a flavours of smoke and fruity sweetness.
The following day, Savage led a training workshop to teach local bartenders about Scotch, the Johnnie Walker brands and making cocktails with them.
He said that the whole World Class experience was training bartenders to be more than just bartenders.
“What we’re doing now is to explore the creativity of the bartender,” he said.
Savage said a lot of bartenders are not initially comfortable making cocktails with Scotch.
“Whisky is a difficult canvas,” he said. “Because of its smoky characteristics, it has been perceived as the mortal enemy of the bartender.”
One part of the training seminars involves learning about the Diageo World Class “responsible drinking starts with responsible serving” platform. This initiative tries to raise awareness of a bartender’s responsibility when serving alcohol to consumers and ways they can pass on that knowledge to consumers in interesting and educational ways, including using menus as tools to provide information on alcohol content of drinks and offering advice about not drinking and driving, not drinking too quickly and drinking water and eating food while drinking alcohol. Part of the World Class competition scoring includes points for imparting the responsible drinking message.
Savage said the Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong theme involved looking at bartender as entertainers.
“It’s about how creative you can be in entertaining your customer,” he said, pointing out that the cocktail culture was actually born at the same time as silent motion pictures and it evolved parallel to that genre.
Bartenders had a choice of whiskies to use: either Johnnie Walker Gold Label or Johnnie Walker Blue Label. In addition to the ingredients used, competitors were judged on aspects like the ritual of making the cocktail and the stories they told.
In the end, bartender Fernando Abalsamo of the Grand Caymanian hotel took top honours with his Bollywood-inspired performance that involved costume, ritual and narrative, as well as a tasty, gold-coloured cocktail he called “The Treasure”. The cocktail blended 50ml of Johnnie Walker Gold Label, 30ml of yerba mate tea and 15ml of honey syrup. He prepared the cocktail by pouring all the ingredients into a mixing glass and rolling it back and forth between another mixing glass. He then poured it over ice, stirred it, strained it into a coupe glass and garnished the cocktail with a lemon peel spiral.
With his wave victory, Abalsamo automatically advances to the Cayman finals.
Coming in second in the wave was Agua’s Simon Crompton, who also placed second in the first wave and is well positioned to advance to the finals. Seggie Quizeo of Rum Point Club finished third in the wave.
Savage, who was one of three judges for the second wave, said he was impressed by the cocktails created by the participating bartenders. Another judge, Jacques Scott’s Findlay Wilson, who was also a judge for the first wave, said he thought the quality of the bartenders’ cocktails exceeded those of the first wave, which used vodka, a much easier spirit with which to work.
“There was not one cocktail made here today that I wouldn’t like to drink,” Wilson said.
The winner of the Cayman final will advance to the global final, which will be held on the boutique luxury cruise liner that will tour the Mediterranean from 4 – 9 July.