Returning for a second year to Cayman’s World Class Cocktails finals, bartender Fede Gisbert Johnson sat on a cloud nine of his own making this time around.
The Backroom mixologist, who came so close to victory in 2017 – taking second place to winner Amba Lamb of Seven Restaurant – Johnson claimed the top marks from judges at the Grand Cayman Marriott this year, securing a spot in the world finals this October in Berlin.
With a “heavenly gardens” theme, Johnson looked quite angelic behind his pop-up bar during Cayman’s May 16 finals, where he donned a halo below tufts of cotton clouds and soft blue lighting.
Like his fellow finalists – Micah Jensen of Cracked Conch and Adam Slobodian of The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman – Johnson had just 24 hours and $400 to design and construct his pop-up bar for the finals, explained Jacques Scott Brand Ambassador Simon Crompton.
“A lot of people spend years building a bar and they did this in 24 hours,” Crompton said.
“They all made amazing drinks, all completely different themes. We’ve got the biker bar in one corner, the unicorn bar in another and the heavenly angel bar. And they’ve all got very different personalities, so it’s just amazing seeing what can be done.”
While Cayman’s World Class finals typically accept just two finalists, the competition pool was so strong this year, judges decided to take on three bartenders for the closing round at the Marriott.
Whittled down from a group of bartenders who competed and trained since February, these final three represented the best that Cayman’s competitive cocktail scene has to offer.
“These three who are here were quite far ahead in the scores from the other guys, but there was three points between all three of them. When it was that close, the judges couldn’t decide who we wanted it to be, so we asked my bosses if we could take three,” Crompton said.
Rising to the top of the bartending pool in Cayman is no easy task, where the high-end tourism product and an international public demand quality.
Rafael Reyes, a regional World Class judge, described increasing standards behind Cayman’s bars that are setting the pace for the region.
“The level is going higher and higher every year. The guys are becoming more and more competitive. We’ve seen a lot of talented guys and new faces coming into this year’s competition,” he said.
“Cayman is a bit of a particular situation in the Caribbean and Central America because you get a lot of bartenders from all over the world. That’s a very huge advantage because you get different knowledge, education and experiences and they all meld together.”
Preparing for Germany
Competitor turned judge, Amba Lamb described the world finals, where she competed in Mexico City last year, as both a terrifying and amazing experience.
“You’re really conscious of the fact that you’re representing Cayman and you want to do well at it,” she said.
She recommended Johnson spend the coming months sharpening his skills and learning about German cuisine.
“Between now and then, you’re going to want to tidy up your technique. You’re going to want to learn a little about Germany, a little about their cuisine. … They will probably have some sort of local component with it.”
Johnson will enjoy a double treat in Berlin, where he will not only compete against 60 other competitors for World Class but he will also be able to attend Berlin’s bar conference, Bar Convent Berlin.
In light of his win, he described feeling both overwhelmed and loved.
“It is an honor to be the one chosen to represent our little rock in the biggest competition ever. It is the dream of every bartender and the one I had when I started this journey back in the day in London,” Johnson said.
“Now this got real and I still can’t believe it, but now I’ve got the responsibility of giving everything I’ve got to give a good name to Cayman and also my little baby, the Backroom.”
In the meantime, Johnson says he will focus on developing new drinks and tending the Backroom bar.