There is nothing new about adding fruits and plants to cocktails, and indeed, people have been doing that for centuries.
Sometimes the addition of fruits or plants is subtle, and in many cases more effective as a visual garnish – a twist of lemon here, a sprig of mint there – than a flavoring agent. However, with modern technology, new bartending techniques and the advent in almost every liquor category of premium and super-premium spirits that allow for a more symbiotic merging of flavors, fruits and plants have become mainstays in today’s craft cocktails.
To help train bartenders how to get the most out of fruits and plants and to launch the 2016 Diageo World Class cocktail competition, Jacques Scott Wines & Spirits brought Puerto Rican bartender Mario Seijo to Cayman to host a mixology master class on the subject.
Seijo, who placed sixth in the global finals of the 2013 World Class competition and has now become a brand ambassador for Diageo, also served as one of the judges for the first wave of this year’s competition in Cayman on Feb. 17, the day after the master class.
“We’re here to talk about techniques and how to extract the most out of plants and fruits,” he said, explaining that different plants and fruits have to be used in unique ways because of their strength of flavor. “For example, you would not use a mint leaf the same way you would rosemary.”
Over the next three-and-a-half-hours, Seijo spoke about various bartending techniques while making cocktails for the bartenders in the class to try.
Shrubs, infusions and extractions
Adding fruit flavors to cocktails often involves adding purees, fresh-squeezed juices or even already packaged juices or mixes. However, to get even more flavor from fruits, today’s bartenders can use a variety of techniques. The golden rule, however, is to start with fresh fruit.
“For the truest flavor of fruit, get it direct from fresh ingredients,” said Seijo.
One way of maximizing the flavors is by infusion – the process of putting fruit or herbs in the spirit and letting them stand together for several days or more.
Another way is called a shrub, which adds sugar to the mixture. The English version of a shrub, which dates back more than 400 years, involves steeping fruit pulp or rinds in a mixture of sugar, liquid (juice or water) and alcohol.
Perhaps the most famous shrub of this type is limoncello, the Italian after-dinner liqueur.
American shrubs, which have been around since colonial times, use vinegar as the liquid and can be infused with herbs and spices, as well as fruits, and then diluted with still or sparkling water.
Unlike with tea, the liquid is not boiled to make an infusion shrub, but allowed to steep at room temperature so as not to burn off the alcohol or diminish the freshness of the fruit flavors. However, one way of speeding up the process without too much diminishment is to use a sous vide bath, which gives a consistent hot-but-not-too-hot temperature throughout the process. This infuses the fruit flavors in a matter of hours instead of days.
Seijo said there is no specific formula for an infusion or shrub, and that even the steeping time varies.
“There are some shrubs that I would leave for two days and others I would leave for a week,” he said.
Fresh extraction, which is also known as juicing, is one of the most common ways of using fruits and plants in drinks. There are two popular types of juicers these days, centrifugal and cold press, also known as masticating juicers. Although the cold press juicers are more expensive, they give higher yields and the best flavor.
Some juices, however, can have an adverse effect on the way a cocktail looks, so bartenders sometimes clarify juices for use in a cocktail. Using a machine to clarify the juice is one way but is cost prohibitive for most people – and even for most bars and restaurants. Instead, bartenders mix a little agar powder into the juice. The agar bonds to the pulp, which can then be filtered out, leaving a mostly clear juice that retains the fresh flavors, leading to better looking cocktails that often surprise customers with their flavor intensity.
Competition and dinner
After the day of training, the competitive part of the 2016 World Class competition took place in the George Town Yacht Club meeting room, with 18 Cayman Islands bartenders participating.
Diageo Brand Ambassador Simon Crompton, who won the Cayman World Class competition in 2013 and is now taking the lead in organizing this year’s event as well as being one of the judges, said the standard of cocktails was “off the charts.”
“The details of the presentations and especially the ingredients prepared took bartending on the island to another level and only makes me more excited to see what the next round will bring,” he said.
Each of the three judges scored the competitors on various criteria such as taste, presentation, aroma and interaction during preparation, with the average of the three judges representing the bartenders’ scores.
Scores from the first wave will be added to the scores from the second wave in April to determine which 10 bartenders advance to the finals in May. Crompton said the difference between the scores from first place and 15th place was only 25 points, so even those who did not finish in the top five are very much in the running for the finals if they do well in the second round.
Finishing on top in scoring for the first wave was Simone Pagnozzi of Agua Restaurant & Lounge, with Amba Lamb of Seven at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and Josh Wludyka of Agua coming in second and third, respectively. Matt Kahnert from Agave Grill finished fourth, and Mich Alejandro Diaz from Casa 43 finished fifth.
To put an appropriate ending on the World Class week, on the evening after the competition, the Cracked Conch hosted a cocktail dinner that featured five cocktails prepared by bartender Micah Jensen paired with five dishes paired by chef Gilbert Cavallaro.
Courses, including ceviche, smoked lionfish and boneless short rib, were all expertly paired by Jensen, who prepared cocktails made with gin, vodka, tequila, Scotch whisky and rum, taking care to match the flavor profiles of the cocktails with the dish with which it was served.
Seijo, who attended the dinner as well, said he was very impressed by everything he saw from the bartenders in Cayman.
“All the guys did a great job,” he said. “I am leaving with great memories … and a few ideas for my bar.”