World Class raises the bar on bartending

After four months of intense training and competition, six of Cayman’s top bartenders met at the Grand Old House on 2 May for one final competition where Agua Restaurant & Lounge’s Simon Crompton won the right to join a luxury Mediterranean cruise to compete for the global title of Diageo Reserve World Class Bartender of the Year.  

In addition to raising awareness of premium spirit brands for use in cocktails, Diageo Reserve World Class was established in part to elevate the craft of bartending. If you ask the bartenders who took part in the competition in the Cayman Islands this year, they’ll say Diageo certainly succeeded in its goal. 

Diageo, which is the world’s largest producer of spirits, established World Class in 2009 and it is as much an educational programme as it is a bartending competition. World Class, which took place in Cayman for the first time this year, involved three preliminary rounds – called waves – of competition, where ‘ambassadors’ of Diageo’s various premium brands came to Cayman teach the participating bartenders about the spirit, the brand and about how to use it best in a cocktail. These training sessions, which occurred the day before the cocktail-making competitions, gave Cayman’s bartenders access to a higher level of expertise than they usually would have through Diageo’s local distributor, the Jacques Scott Group. 

From the beginning of the competition here in Cayman, it was obvious that Agua Restaurant & Lounge bartender Simon Crompton took World Class very seriously and he said he learned a lot during the four months of competition. 

“It was great to have [the Diageo brand ambassadors] come down and teach us about the products,” he said. 

Each preliminary wave – all of which took place at Taikun Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman – focused on a different premium brand spirit: Ketel One vodka in the first wave in late January; Johnnie Walker blended Scotch Whisky in the second wave in early March; and Zacapa rum in the third wave in late April.  

Although the training seminars were well attended and appreciated by Cayman’s bartenders, the competitive parts – which were scored by a panel of three judges – proved to be nerve-racking. Many of the bartenders experienced trembling voices and shaking hands as they tried to create a good tasting cocktail while at the same time trying to tick the other scoring boxes. 

For some, the intensity of the competition – as well as the time commitment – was too much and with each wave the field of competitors became smaller. Sixteen bartenders competed in the first wave, but there were only six remaining for the final. 


More than taste  

Rather than being just a cocktail competition, Diageo Reserve World Class is a bartending competition.  

Beyond making tasty cocktails, Diageo believes that being a good bartender involves characteristics like personality, knowledge creativity, technical skill, cleanliness and, because alcohol is involved, responsibility.  

Because of this, taste aspects of the cocktail only made up 30 per cent of a bartender’s total score in the competition waves. 

The bartenders generally had five or six minutes to create a cocktail – invented by them – that played on a particular theme. The first wave had a theme of ‘Retro Chic’, which meant the bartenders were supposed to put a new twist on a classic cocktail from years past. The second wave had the theme ‘Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong’ and asked the bartenders to be entertainers of sorts while they prepared the cocktails. The third wave had the theme ‘Tropical Journey’ and asked the bartenders to use creative tropical ingredients in creating the next generation of tropical cocktails. 

While making their cocktails in all three waves, the bartenders were expected to have a presence of stage where they engaged the judges and showed some of their personality. They were also expected to tell a story about the spirit they were using and about the drink they were preparing, all the while trying to be interesting and original. 

Technical aspects of their bartending skills – like their speed in preparing the cocktail, their accuracy in using ingredients, their cleanliness and their sense of ‘mise en place’ – or having their work space organised efficiently – were also scored. 

Another part of the scoring involved Diageo’s initiative to promote the idea that responsible drinking starts with responsible serving. While making their cocktails, the bartenders were expected to offer water or snacks to the judges, or to tactfully deliver messages that encouraged responsible drinking. 

Of course, the taste of the cocktail they made was also important  

Cocktails were judged on taste, balance and whether the base of the spirit was evident and complemented the ingredients. The commercial potential of the cocktail was also a factor in the scoring. 

The first wave was won by Ruben Pattipeilohy of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman with his modern take on the classic Manhattan cocktail using Ketel One vodka. 

Fernando Abalsamo of the Grand Caymanian hotel took top honours in the second wave with his Bollywood-inspired performance that involved costume, ritual and narrative while preparing a cocktail he called ‘The Treasure’ using Johnny Walker Gold Label Reserve Scotch Whiskey. 

Crompton, who took second place in both the first two waves, won the third wave making a tropical cocktail using Zacapa 23 rum.  


The finals  

For the finals, which took place on 2 May at Grand Old House, Diageo brand ambassador Paulo Figueiredo returned to Cayman – he also led the first wave of the competition – to be the lead judge. 

All three of the wave winners – Pattipeilohy, Abalsamo and Crompton – automatically advanced to the finals. They were joined by Rum Point bartender Seggy Quizeo, who had scored well in the preliminary waves, and by Andy Trattner of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman’s Silver Palm Lounge and Jono Firstbrook of Billy Bones and O Bar. 

Unlike the preliminary waves, the finals included four challenges, starting with a written responsible serve test followed by a free pour test that measured the accuracy of the bartenders to pour shots of different sizes with each of their hands without using a measuring device. 

But the most difficult challenge of the competition was the ‘cocktails against the clock’ segment where each bartender was expected to make six cocktails within eight minutes and show the same kinds of good bartending attributes that they did in the preliminary waves.  

Figueiredo spoke to the bartenders before the competition began, telling them the importance of having a good presence of stage. 

“I always say a good bartender, in addition to having speed and technical abilities, has to be a able to run energy,” he said, adding that they should have the idea during the competition that the judges were just customers in their bar on a busy Friday night. He said that if a group of customers walked up and ordered six drinks while they were busy making drinks for other 
customers, the people who just walked in would have to be engaged by the bartender if he expected them to wait patiently.  

“You have to entertain them, acknowledge them and talk to them,” Figueiredo said. “If you don’t, they’ll leave. I would leave. But if you do, they’ll wait.” 

Figueiredo said the judges wanted to see who was a real bartender. “Everyone can make a drink. Everyone can tell a good story. But can you make six good drinks quickly and tell a story at the same time?” he asked. “That’s what makes a real bartender and that’s what World Class is all about.”  

The cocktails for the speed round, which could have used any of the Diageo premium spirit brands showcased earlier in the competition as well as Tanqueray No. Ten gin and Don Julio tequila, weren’t expected to be as elaborate as the single cocktails the bartenders made in the preliminary waves, but they were still supposed to be creative, have good taste and balance, and showcase the spirit well. 

To add to the pressure, the judges engaged the bartenders with questions while they were preparing their cocktails. 

Only the top two scoring bartenders from the speed round advanced to the fourth challenge, the ‘Signature Special’ final round. Most of the bartenders had difficulties in the speed round and there were many spills and off-balance cocktails prepared. But two bartenders, Crompton and Trattner, were calmer in their presentations and showed they were well-prepared and advanced to the final round. 

Although the competition was close, Crompton was the clear winner with a Don Julio tequila-based cocktail. 

All the bartending competitors were then invited to Agua for the after party, where ironically Crompton was the bartender working, preparing cocktails for others to celebrate his victory. 

Before Crompton heads to Europe to compete with 50 other contestants from around the globe for the title of Diageo World Class Bartender of the Year in July, he’ll head to Panama in mid-June for a full week of additional training. This training with two Diageo cocktail gurus will better prepare him for the much more elaborate World Class Finals aboard the boutique luxury cruise ship, the Azamara Journey, which sets sail from Nice, France and makes several stops before arriving at Barcelona, Spain.