When average Joes hear the term “cocktail competition” they probably think of Tom Cruise, clad in a blousy button-up and pleated slacks, flipping bottles and spinning glassware while “Hippy Hippy Shake” plays on the jukebox. Pretty cool, sure, but not what we’re talking about here. In fact, as America, and then the world, fell in love yet again with cleverly crafted cocktails over the past decade-plus, a series of competitions emerged. The goal? Finding some of the world’s best bartenders, as well as their latest, masterful creations.
“Two years ago I was in Cuba, traveling for two months,” Gn Chan tells me over the phone, as I hear shakers jingling in the background. He’s a longtime bartender at a legendary East Village nouveau-speakeasy that was a key player in New York’s cocktail-bar revival. “I met this guy, a historian. We were chatting and he told me this word, venceremos. He told me it was his gift to me. I was really touched.”
Meaning “We shall overcome,”the word was on Chan’s mind late last year as he began preparing for the BACARDÍ Legacy Global Cocktail Competition 2016. He told me he mostly signed up because it seemed like a fun thing to do and he thought maybe he’d learn some new techniques along the way.
It’s not just that, though. As bartenders across the globe have become celebrities in their own right, as famed as the chefs clogging up Food Network, many like Chan have also started wondering how they actually compare to some guy or gal behind the stick in, say, San Francisco, or Tokyo.
“The main reason I entered World Class [another bartending competition] is because I don’t get as much time to learn and prep anymore,” Steve Walton, a longtime Utah bartender tells me. “It forced my hand. It made me need to push myself to the next level, and do something different.”
Walton, currently a mixologist in Park City, wanted to test his mettle against folks from, say, California who might get to work under less-regulated circumstances than he does in rules-heavy Utah.
“While competing, I had to just keep telling myself, ‘Be yourself, be yourself, be yourself,’” he explains. He didn't want to do anything outside his personal comfort zone or bartending beliefs just to impress the judges.
Competing in a series of contests—ranging from creating original cocktails using randomly drawn ingredients, to speedily making drinks against a ticking clock—Walton acquitted himself quite well, advancing to the regional finals. But winning was not of the greatest importance to Walton; rather, he considered the competition an invaluable learning experience that will benefit him and his future customers immensely.
For Chan to win the early regional rounds of BACARDÍ international competition, he would need to come up with his own original “classic” cocktail with just a few caveats. It had to be rum-based, it could have no more than six ingredients, and none of the ingredients could be handmade or particularly obscure. Most importantly, though, each cocktail needed to in some way tell the story of the bartender who created it. Re-enter that “gift” Chan had received in Cuba.
“The Bacardí family is from Santiago de Cuba, but they got exiled after the Cuban revolution. I thought that married with my story of growing up in Taiwan,” Chan explains. “I was a magician, a street performer, a designer. And then I got scammed, lost it all, and had to overcome that and start a new career bartending in America.”
The cocktail Chan came up with, of course called Venceremos, used a 1.5 ounces base of BACARDÍ® Superior rum. He added coconut liqueur and pineapple juice to honor the first cocktail he ever had in America, the piña colada. (“The pineapple and coconut reminded me of my culture.”) Chan wanted to also add an ingredient authentic to his Taiwanese upbringing. He opted for sesame oil. (“It’s common in food culture, but not common in drink culture,” he tells me.) He also added cucumber and lemon, as cucumber, sesame oil, and salt is a common side dish in his homeland.
Presenting this drink on a stage in front of a United States Bartenders' Guild panel of judges featuring such bold-faced luminaries as Marcovaldo Dionysos and Ivy Mix (founder of her own, females-only cocktail competition called Speed Rack), Chan and Venceremos were declared America’s winner. He would be headed to the finals, but more interestingly, he had inadvertently begun affecting bar menus the world over—perhaps the most important goal of cocktail competitions.
“It’s been on the menu since August,” Chan says of Venceremos. “Also many bars around the world have put it on, whether temporarily or permanently. Even bars without menus, it’s like, they know how to make it.” Chan explains he intentionally made his cocktail easy to put together. “It’s not even for bartenders. Anyone can make it.”
Whether Venceremos becomes a permanent fixture of cocktail culture is yet to be seen, but it wouldn’t be the first time a competition cocktail become a mainstay. One of the biggest cocktail competition success stories is that of the Trinidad Sour, a drink made with an atypical base of an ounce-and-a-half of Angostura® bitters. Giuseppe Gonzalez, then the head bartender at a Brooklyn bar, designed the ambitious drink to garner attention at a 2009 competition.
“I broke it down, I made it for the...judges, and I lost,” Gonzalez, now the owner of his own bar, told the Washington Post. “I always joke around with people, like, ‘What was the winning cocktail?’ Nobody remembers.”
Nobody remembers because the Trinidad Sour has become a mainstay on cocktail bar menus the world over—all because Gonzalez wanted to impress some judges.
This weekend in San Francisco, Chan will attempt to impress his own judges as he faces off against 36 other international bartenders in an attempt to be crowned the BACARDÍ Legacy Global Cocktail Competition champion.
So what do you get if you win?
“Nothing,” Chan says with a laugh. “No money, no car, no TV appearance, no reward. Just being the winner. Just the title. It’s a great honor.”