The Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition returned to Grand Cayman on March 26 with a round dedicated to Don Julio tequila. After getting some training on the spirit, 12 of Cayman’s bartenders came to Taikun restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and created some inspired tequila-based cocktails that paid homage to a worldwide party favorite, punch.
Despite the many misconceptions about tequila, it makes a great base for cocktails – and not just for America’s top-selling cocktail, the margarita.
To highlight the soft side of tequila, especially quality tequila, the third Cayman wave of the 2014 Diageo Reserve World Class completion asked competitors to create a punch cocktail using the spirit.
The day before the competition, a dozen of Cayman’s bartenders came to a training session led by Gina Castillo, the Don Julio regional brand ambassador for Latin America and the Caribbean, who not only instructed them about tequila in general and Don Julio tequila in particular, but also about the history and allure of punch.
Thirty years ago, there really was no such thing as premium tequila.
“Most tequila was either blanco (unaged white tequila) or of poor quality,” says Castillo. “People really didn’t appreciate the difference between tequila made with 100 percent blue agave and other tequilas.” Castillo was referring to what is known as “mixtos,” a tequila that is made with at least 51 percent blue agave juice and the rest distilled from any number of sugar sources, often just sugar cane. Until the last decade or so, mixtos tequilas completely dominated the export market and shaped the perception of the spirit, especially in its biggest export market, the United States.
“Don Julio really was the person who changed the perceptions, even with Mexicans,” Castillo said.
Don Julio Gonzalez, the man for whom the tequila is named, started in the industry in 1942, at the age of 17. By then, Don Julio had already shown he was responsible, having taken over as head of his household after the death of his father when he was 15, Castillo said. After gaining some experience in the tequila industry, the confident young Don Julio approached the richest man in town and asked for a loan to start a distillery. Looking at the teenager, the rich man asked him how he planned to pay back the loan, and Don Julio responded that although he came to him on that day in peasant shoes, he would one day return in leather boots and repay all of the money.
“The rich man saw that Don Julio had a vision in that he saw himself in leather boots, so he gave him the loan,” Castillo said.
Over the next 43 years, Don Julio worked at perfecting the craft of producing tequila, understanding that good tequila is only produced by using high-quality blue agave plants that are picked at the right maturity and roasted the right way and then distilled and aged with care. Then, in 1985, for his 60th birthday party, his distillery created a special tequila that was served in small bottles placed on the tables. They called this aged tequila “Don Julio.”
“That tequila tasted different than anything on the market,” Castillo said, adding that many of the guests began asking for the tequila after the party. Two years later, the Don Julio brand of tequila was launched, creating what was considered the first premium brand of tequila.
World Class punch
Although the Diageo Reserve World Class competition was held in the Cayman Islands in 2013, there were only three waves associated with the preliminary rounds, instead of the four being held this year. The one regular wave that didn’t occur in Cayman in 2013 was the one focused on Don Julio tequila, so none of the participating bartenders this year had any World Class competition experience with the spirit.
Every World Class wave has a theme and the theme for the Don Julio wave was “Punch and Glass.”
“The reason we chose punch with tequila is because they both symbolize family and friends,” said Castillo, who noted that in Mexico, bottles of tequila on the table are an integral part of social gatherings.
During the pre-competition training session, Castillo told the bartenders that punch originated in India and that the word “punch” means five in Hindi.
“The original punch had five ingredients – citrus, sugar, water, spirit and spice, which could be any herb or spice or tea,” said Castillo, who explained that the idea of punch is to create a balanced cocktail in which the spirit comes through but not as strongly, because punch is supposed to be consumed over a longer period of time.
Many countries have popular kinds of punch, with some served hot and some served cold, and Cayman’s bartenders were allowed to make any kind of punch they wanted as long as it contained at least the five required ingredients and was served in some kind of punch bowl.
“Punch is not as technical as other cocktails,” Castillo said. “Punch is supposed to be more fun.”
In the end, two of Cayman’s bartenders from Europe – the Ritz-Carlton’s Andy Trattner from Austria and the Grand Old House’s Antonio Hafner from Italy – made hot punches with great success. Trattner finished first in the competition with his “Tribute Punch” cocktail that was a play on mulled wine. Hafner’s “Drink the Fear,” which blended buerre Suzette sauce with orange juice and Don Julio 1942 tequila wowed the judges and earned him a tie for third place.
Other top finishers included Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink’s Cameron Welniak, who finished in second place for the second consecutive wave with this “Yatra” cocktail, using the Hindi world for journey. Welniak used Don Julio reposado tequila in a punch that also included homemade guava jelly and sorrel tea.
Finishing in a tie for third was Conrad Gaugh, who really brought the fun to his “Don Pino” punch that was mixed in a punch bowl made of a fresh pineapple and then poured from the fruit through a spout fashioned from a leaf.
Castillo, who attends the World Class waves in many countries throughout the Caribbean and Latin America region, said she was impressed by the effort and quality of the bartenders in Cayman.
“What I was most surprised by was that everyone’s approach was so different because everyone’s ethnicity is so different,” she said, referring to the fact that the 12 contestants came from eight countries by birth. “It was much different than waves in other places.”
Only a portion of the judging criteria in the World Class competition involves taste and aroma, with the contestants also being judged on their presentation, their knowledge of the product, the “story” they tell about the drink while preparing it, their timeliness in getting it completed and evidence of responsible serving, which could include offering a glass of water and some food or encouraging the judges to drink responsibly.
“The bartenders’ presentations were very elaborate,” said Castillo. “No one really repeated that many ingredients and everyone took it seriously.”
To celebrate their efforts, many of the bartenders joined the Don Julio Cocktail Cruise aboard the Spirit of Poseidon catamaran for a happy hour that featured three kinds of punch made with Don Julio reposado tequila.
The final preliminary wave of the competition was scheduled to take place on April 30 and focus on the Scotch whiskies of Johnnie Walker. The top bartenders in the four preliminary waves will then advance to the Cayman Finals in May, with the winner getting a paid trip to participate in the World Finals in London from July 28 to August 1.