Cocktail culture in the Caribbean – and indeed the world – has come a long way since the days when Tom Cruise tossed bottles and shook shakers with such gusto in the movie Cocktail.
If Simon Crompton, bar manager at Agua, had pulled one of those painfully ‘80s stunts last month at the World Class by Diageo competition, he would have been laughed right out of the arena. A highly prestigious international contest, the World Class competition seeks out the very finest cocktail makers in the world, who not only know spirits like a sommelier knows wine, but who have made a sophisticated art of mixing and matching ingredients to create unique flavors, and who have turned the preparation of cocktails into a show of its own.
Having won the Cayman Islands round of the competition in May, Crompton spent a week in Panama preparing for the finals alongside the other winners from the Latin America and Caribbean region, before being flown to Monaco, where the most talented bartenders from 44 countries around the world spent five days performing alcohol alchemy.
It’s the cocktail equivalent to Master Chef, Crompton explains, and the judges – or gurus as they are referred to – are the Gordon Ramsays and Marco Pierre Whites of the mixology world, and considered demigods in cocktail circles.
The competitors representing large countries like Brazil and the U.S., had already beaten thousands of others to get to this stage in the competition and arrived with their own press teams and entourages.
Lone rep from Cayman
Crompton, on the other hand, showed up alone to represent the Cayman Islands.
“For the bigger countries, the national finals had been televised, so they were used to having microphones and speaking to crowds of several hundred, whereas here there were just six of us in the finals and 10 or 15 people watching. So to go from that to having two TV cameras on you, three of the most well-known judges in the world in front of you and 40 or 50 people behind them watching you was … different,” he recalls.
The 44 finalists, along with a film crew who were making a TV show about the competition, the gurus, and past competitors, boarded a 500-passenger cruise ship that had been hired especially for the five-day competition. Each day, the bartenders were given different challenges to complete, which ranged from speed tests to creating cocktails with mystery ingredients and inventing drinks to pair with certain dishes.
“It sounds weird, but the drinks you make are only about 20 percent of it. It’s about the presentation you give, the showmanship, your personality and the entertainment factor,” Crompton says.
One night, he says, they were let loose in a room filled with herbs, spices and roots and tasked with infusing a bottle of gin with their choice of ingredients, prior to creating a cocktail with it the next day.
Another challenge, a Whisky Sensorium, demanded that competitors create an experience for the judges that would appeal to all five senses. In order to do so, they were expected to use lighting, music, smoke, textures and more.
Bottle serves, Crompton says, were some of the hardest challenges.
“You’re given a spirit and you have to present it in such a way that it enhances the spirit without actually making it a cocktail – so you take the judges on a journey of that spirit.”
In true reality TV show style, there were, of course, nerve-wracking eliminations that took place.
“You think you’ve seen it all before on TV, but they had us all in a room and you’re split into groups of four, and then the groups get taken one by one through this door, and you have no idea what happens to them after that. It was a horrible experience to go through,” he says of the first round of eliminations.
He was, nonetheless, among the 16 that made it through to the next stage of the competition, and no sooner had the eliminations been announced than it was on to bewitching the judges with more clever stories and presentations.
All in the details
Reading the judges was also key in the competition, Crompton says. He fared better with those he had met before, than those he did not know. Even what some might consider details, such as how you taste your cocktails, must be tailored to the judges in front of you: some judges like you to use a straw, whereas others won’t stand for that and expect you to dab a little on the back of your hand with a spoon instead.
Living and working on an island as small as Cayman does have its disadvantages when you’re going to head to head with the very best in the world.
“The guys you are up against are doing this kind of crazy stuff every day – they have all this equipment, smokers, glassware, the right ice … and they can go to other bars and see what is being done there,” Crompton says.
“Although the cocktail scene is coming along here, you’re not doing this kind of thing every day. I had to push myself to learn to do these things – and I did a lot of my research on YouTube,” he adds.
Ultimately, Crompton was told at the second round of eliminations that it was the end of the road for him in the competition. In terms of points, he placed 11th out of the 44 best cocktail bartenders in the world. He also put the Cayman Islands on the map for the other people involved in the competition.
Although no doubt disappointed to have been eliminated, being out of the competition at that point was not the end of the world.
“After that, you stayed on the boat,” Crompton recalls. “There was a Kettle One Bar, a Johnnie Walker Bar and a hidden Tanqueray speakeasy bar that you had to have a code to get into – and you had all these luxury brands and the world’s best bartenders, including past competitors, manning the bars and making you drinks, so getting knocked out at that point wasn’t all bad.”