Mixing drinks has become such an artform around the world that global competitions have popped up to find the world's best bartender.
The eighth Global Cocktail Challenge took place last week at the House of Angostura, a distillery that produces several varieties of rum as well as its famed bitters, a staple of the cocktail industry.
Contestants came to Trinidad & Tobago from 11 different countries. Each one won a regional competition that elevated him into the final round, which took place on February 10, a few hours prior to the start of Carnival celebrations in this Caribbean nation.
There are rules and contest stipulations that prevent the Angostura challenge from being a true indicator of a top bartender. For one thing, the people who should be in the running for the title -- including Salvatore Calabrese, whose Salvatore at Playboy in London is a groundbreaking cocktail bar, and Japanese cocktail pioneer Hidetsugu Ueno -- were on the other side of the competition table, serving as judges. Contestants must use Angostura products as well, limiting their flexibility. But there's no doubting that the contestants are among the best in their profession. Canada's entrant, Oliver Stern of the Toronto Temperance Society, has previously won a Disaronno national competition.
And there is definitely a higher level of skill and discipline involved in mixology than most barflies would realize.
"Judges will deduct points if a contestant doesn't use a strainer to remove excess water from a glass or if there are spills. Presentation is important. Personality is very important," said Ian Burrell, who has won several cocktail competitions and is a leading authority on rum making.
While building the cocktails, each contestant had seven minutes to mix two drinks and was tasked with speaking to the judges and audience, which included global media members. One finalist, Stanislav Mukhin of Ukraine, learned English in order to make his presentation.
Most fascinating was to gain an insight into the ingredients being incorporated around the world. The South African entrant, Dominic Walsh, used a beer from his homeland in one of his recipes, while American Sean Frederick featured teas, including the powerful and smoky Lapsang suchong from China. India's Pankaj Kamble had flower syrup as an ingredient, and 22-year-old New Zealander Jake Searell, the contest's youngest competitor, used tea, brown butter and maple syrup in his recipes. Stern's Burning Embers cocktail included his homemade jalapeño-infused orgeat, a syrup. He made the drink and the Trip Flip, a regular item on the Toronto Temperance Society drinks menu, for the contest. However, he finished out of the running.
Trinidad's Daniyel Jones became a hometown hero when he took top honours while Muhkin placed second and Argentina's Daniel Biber came in third. Jones claimed a $10,000 US cheque and the opportunity to represent Angostura as a judge at 2013 regional competitions around the world.
While disappointed in his performance, Stern was thrilled to have the opportunity. "It's a victory just to be here," he said. "The people are amazing and the experience is one I'll never forget."
Carnival Thrills in Trinidad
The Mardi Gras of the Caribbean takes place each February in Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad & Tobago. It is wild, fun, hectic, colourful and refreshingly free of order. Among the attendees this year was Canadian basketball star and former Toronto Raptors forward Jamaal Magliore.
During the parade, there's a rope line on either side of the street, but that rope line is only lightly guarded, meaning photographers can hustle in to take shots of the dancers and their costumes, and onlookers can jump in to march along for a few metres with the parade. There are drinks trucks, marvellous vehicles where bartenders pour alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages into cups for any parade-goer with a wristband and the stamina to jog alongside the mobile bar. The music is loud -- achingly so -- and the song choice is so repetitive that it makes a dentist's drill sound harmonious. (You will need hypnotherapy to remove Bunji Garlin's "Differentology (Ready for the Road)" from your hippocampus after attending the Carnival.)
Called Mas (short for "masquerade"), the annual Carnival on Fat Tuesday is the culmination of a days-long celebration that includes a children's carnival, an overnight dance-til-dawn festivity called Jouvert, and a half-day Mas. It is one of the few remaining massive events in the world that has not been spoiled by commercialization and political structure. You will have fun at the Trinidad Carnival, that's guaranteed. But you're also likely to come away with a sense that this event is one of the best kept travel secret's around. While New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro get the headlines, Trinidad's Mas is the Carnival event you should be attending in 2014.
Visit Vacay.ca to read more about the Trinidad Carnival and the Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge.
CORRECTION: This post incorrectly stated that Dominic Walsh was the entrant who used teas in his cocktail.