Laurie Eaton of The Bistro restaurant will represent the Cayman Islands at the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition finals to compete against more than 60 mixologists from around the globe for the title of best bartender in the world.

The Liverpool native beat out nine other finalists in the Cayman Islands finals on May 14 and 15, culminating a three-part competition that started in February. When the finals were narrowed to two for the last competition challenge at the Marriott Grand Cayman Beach Resort on May 15, Eaton defeated Agua Restaurant & Lounge’s Josh Wludyka in the “Pop-up Bar Challenge” to win the title.

Melting Pot Bar

For Eaton, the victory came as a bit of a surprise.

“I didn’t actually place first in any of the [competition] challenges until the last one,” he said. “I was 15 points behind Josh going into the final. I thought it was near impossible to catch up. I knew I had to pull out something special to make up the points.”

But make up the points he did, and then more, by creating “The Melting Pot Bar” and serving three different cocktails to the judges, who included Diageo World Class Johnny Walker Brand Ambassador Arturo Savage, Blue by Eric Ripert Chef de Cuisine Thomas Seifried, and Jacques Scott’s Diageo Brand Ambassador Simon Crompton.

To get to the final, however, Eaton and Wludyka had to beat eight other bartenders in a long day of competition the day before at George Town Yacht Club. The first challenge of that long day involved each bartender making between five and 10 cocktails in 10 minutes. Those cocktails could be anything – classic cocktails, variations of classic cocktails or new creations – but they could use only one particular spirit in a maximum of two cocktails.

Josh Wludyka preparing 'The Grape & The Grain' cocktail.
Josh Wludyka preparing ‘The Grape & The Grain’ cocktail.

Eaton started his Melting Pot Bar theme from the first challenge of the finals, preparing 10 cocktails, each with an influence from a different place in the world. He chose the theme partially because Cayman’s bartenders, and the population in general, come from many different places.

“So it was reflective of Cayman, and where I’m from as well,” he said, adding that choosing that theme also provided him a platform in which he could use a wide variety of ingredients in his cocktails.

Eaton used a selection of homemade ingredients in eight of his 10 cocktails in the speed round and scored well, advancing to the second challenge. Only five bartenders of the 10 participating were slated to advance, but two bartenders tied for fifth place, so six went through to the next round.

The second challenge of the day was called “Dealer’s Choice,” where each bartender had to create two cocktails after picking two cards from three different decks, with one deck having the names of spirits, one deck containing styles of cocktails, and one deck containing specific flavors. The bartenders had 30 minutes to create the cocktail using the cards they chose as the guideline. They then had 10 minutes to prepare their bar area and then another 10 minutes to prepare the cocktail.

At "The Melting Pot Bar," bartender Laurie Eaton talks to judges Thomas Seifried, bottom right, and Arturo Savage, while Dave Hennessy plays guitar in the background.
At “The Melting Pot Bar,” bartender Laurie Eaton talks to judges Thomas Seifried, bottom right, and Arturo Savage, while Dave Hennessy plays guitar in the background.

The final two

The scores from the first two rounds were cumulative and when the points were added up, it was Wludyka in the lead and Eaton in second place. The two challenges took the entire day and did not finish until after 10 p.m., giving the two finalists very little time before the next day’s final to conceive and source the elements for their pop-up bar and to create three cocktails, one of which was to become their signature cocktail that would be served to 40 invited guests.

Both of the finalists were given $400 to put together their bar elements, with the spirits provided by Diageo. Laurie said it was a daunting task to complete in just one day, but he succeeded with a little help from friends.

“It wasn’t what I knew, but who I knew,” he said. “I pulled in so many favors that day.”

Eaton’s Melting Pot Bar featured, among other things, a large sign with the bar’s name, a laptop computer showing a video of the Camana Bay farmers market where he bought many of his cocktail ingredients earlier that day, and his friend Dave Hennessy playing the guitar. He also had a table with the foods he served with the cocktails, including local seafood ceviche, a Cayman Islands take on English stew, and freshly baked shortbread.

Josh Wludyka was calm and collected before the final challenge began.
Josh Wludyka was calm and collected before the final challenge began.

Wludyka countered with a bar called “Little Flower Show” that featured many bouquets of flowers, balloons, whole pineapples and a large Iberico ham in the traditional carving stand. His cocktails were very aromatic with the opening “Night Market” featuring passion fruit shrub, Thai basil and other ingredients paired with Tanqueray No. 10 gin. The signature cocktail created by Wludyka was called Mi Violeta and featured Don Julio Reposado tequila, creme de violette and other ingredients. His dessert cocktail used chamomile and Evening Land “La Source” Chardonnay paired with Johnnie Walker Gold Label Scotch whisky.

For Eaton’s first cocktail, called “It’s 5 O’Clock Somewhere,” he mixed Tanqueray No. 10 gin with green tea steeped in fino sherry, aloe vera soda and cucumber. His signature cocktail was called “Melting Pot Punch” and featured Ron Zacapa rum, Caybrew beer, juice from local limes, honey, ginger and sage.

Eaton finished up with “The NBD Cocktail” that blended Johnnie Walker Gold Label with salted caramel and cheese cake foam.

Judge Simon Crompton said the final scoring was close, but Eaton easily made up the points he was behind going into the final challenge.

“He was able to do that because there were 200 points available in the last round,” he said. “That’s a lot of points on offer. In the end, when we added up the points, it was an easy decision. It was close, but it was clear who came out on top.”

Crompton, who won the inaugural Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition in 2013, said he was extremely impressed by the showing of all the bartenders throughout the competition.

“The quality compared to when I was competing is scary,” he said. “I would be scared to go against these guys.

When we got to six [bartenders remaining in the finals], any one of those guys could go to the World Class [global finals] and do well.”

Bartender Laurie Eaton, left, with competition judge Simon Crompton during the final challange of the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition at the Marriott Grand Cayman Beach Resort. - Photos: Alan Markoff
Bartender Laurie Eaton, left, with competition judge Simon Crompton during the final challange of the Diageo Reserve World Class cocktail competition at the Marriott Grand Cayman Beach Resort. – Photos: Alan Markoff

What’s next

This year’s World Class global finals will take place in Miami from Sept. 26-30 at the luxury 1 Hotel South Beach, giving Eaton three months to prepare. Before that, Eaton will go to Mexico City the last week of July, when he will participate in an intense one-week bartenders’ “boot camp” with all the winning bartenders from the U.S., Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Crompton, who will accompany Eaton to Mexico as one of the working brand ambassadors, said the boot camp will prepare Eaton for what is to come in the global finals.

“They put you under pressure and show you what it will be like in the final,” he said. “It’s fun, but it’s a lot of work and it’s challenging.”

Even though it will be intense and sometimes stressful, Eaton is looking forward to the boot camp and finals.

“It’s going to be a whirlwind couple of months,” he said.

Before leaving for Mexico, however, Eaton will be a focal point at a cocktail dinner at the Bistro on July 7. The five-course dinner will be paired with five different cocktails, including some of the cocktails Eaton prepared at his pop-up “Melting Pot Bar” during the final round.

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