Every time we go out to eat or drink, the goal is the same: to have a fun time enjoying something tasty. But sometimes we also want to be wowed, and that can only come from people who not only know their stuff, but are talented and passionate about what they do. How do amazing dishes or drinks come into the world? We’ve all read stories or watched documentaries about chefs and how they create, but we rarely get a chance to hear from the other architects of taste: the bartenders.
Since I became enamoured with food, I also fell in love with cocktails, because there is an ethereal and mysterious quality about a beverage that is not necessarily present in a dish. To mix a variety of liquids that have no relation to one another in order to create a new and defined flavor, is a skill that amazes me. A good bartender needs a sharp palate and an expert nose just like a chef does, and must be precise like a chemist. To understand what makes them tick, I went to the best possible place to observe bartenders: a world cocktail competition.
I’m in Berlin, during the semifinals of Bacardi Legacy global,in an auditorium with 38 of the world’s best bartenders. I am surrounded by imagination and tattoos. Lots of tattoos. What makes this contest special is that they are asked not just to create a delicious cocktail, but one that has both the simplicity and the wonderment to become a classic around the world. They also have to build a story around the drink and promote it for months. It’s a long road to get here, and this is their moment of truth.
I watch them backstage practicing, sweating, talking to themselves. When they go on, blasting music and spotlights, it’s their personality, style, and skill that have to make them stand apart. You don’t need to be a cocktail geek to enjoy watching 38 very creative people approach the same challenge in their unique way. Their commitment is inspiring to say the least. What’s going on in their heads? I focused on five people who caught my eye. While trying to get a glimpse inside the mind of a bartender, I found a few inspiring insights that apply not just to bar life, but could prove useful to our everyday creative challenges.
“Let your surroundings (and your rules) inspire you”
Looking at Kaitlin’s Instagram you can tell she’s a fun and outgoing person. But at the competition, she comes across as a cocktail scholar: disciplined, educated, and opinionated. She speaks and prepares her drink with poise and conviction, you believe everything she says. It would be great to know what her creative process is.
“I always try to find inspiration with what’s around me. And that can come from a situation, or a story someone’s told me, or a dish that I had,” Kaitlin says. “You just have to live life and some situations just really catch you.” Once she’s found an idea, and is ready to turn it into a beverage, she looks at her coloring box. “I have to decide what spirit to use, how much of the back-bar, and how much technique”. But it’s also useful to set your own rules and stick to them, such as using five ingredients or less. “I am really adamant about being able to taste everything you are reading (in a menu). Nothing aggravates me more than going to a bar and looking at a cocktail with 18 ingredients when you can only taste four.”
The Bronx Liquid Parlour
“Be daring, but be cautious as well”
Olive oil, egg white, tomato syrup… sounds more like a salad dressing than a cocktail, but those were some of the ingredients in Saito’s drink. Whoah! What is this man thinking? What is this man drinking? “Sometimes I like a simple drink, like a Manhattan or Negroni,” a very proper Saito says. “But you can get that anywhere. For the cocktails that make us unique, I like to use something unusual.” And unusual it was! I tried the drink and “yummy” is not the word that came to mind, but “amazing” did. The level of balance was astounding. How does anyone come up with something so “out there”? “I like my guests to be surprised,” he says. Saito believes in taking chances, starting with a vision of what one key ingredient might taste like, and build from there.
But he warns me that even when you let imagination go wild, you must not forget about boundaries, because at the end of the day, the drink has to sell. “It’s about operation. It has to replicate pretty easily. It cannot be that complex, Saito explains. “You must balance the operation side with the creative side.”
Theory Bar and more
“Think like a designer”
I had a lot of laughs and also deep conversations with the Greek contestant, Loreta Toska. I realized she had an ability to gage the moment, which is a sensibility she applies to her bartending inspiration. “The most inspirational thing in the world is a problem. If you don’t have a problem, you’re just bored,” she says.
This is a thought that I have heard before from designers. They are thinking about the form, but also about the function of their creation. Loreta thinks not only of the taste and look of the drink, but exactly how and when people will drink it. “I wanted to make a drink that could be the first drink of the night. To forget what happened today,” she says of her competition cocktail, a white and fluffy beverage made with rum and vanilla ice cream that is impossible to drink without smiling. She decides in advance what is the feeling she wants to create with each glass. “Had I made something that was dark and bitter, would be about later.in the night. To have a cigar. When we want to make something inspired by a concept, that is designing. Just making a drink is more like cooking.”
New York City, USA
“Pay attention to your mistakes”
Darnell went on stage with confidence and swagger. His Dominican-inspired passion fruit drink was certainly a big hit, but having a successful cocktail like this one may take a lot of trial and error.
Sometimes we come up with ideas that seem brilliant, but how often are they awesome on the first try? “I have situations when I like to create an out-of-the-box cocktail. I once tried to create a Piña Colada out of a Negroni,” Darnell says with a chuckle. He sees the confusion on my face as I try to do the math. “It was horrible,” he explains, (which makes sense). He says that his idea felt like a failure, but rather than dropping it altogether, he decided to build on the best parts. “I had created a coconut-infused Campari, so I worked with that.” Little by little, that led to the creation of one of his signature cocktails called “French Colony”. Darnell taught me that while your original idea may not have been as great as you first thought, your mistakes will light a pathway to perhaps an even greater outcome.
“Bond with your creation”
Mexican contestant Jorge Landeros’ performance truly moved the audience. When we chatted, I realized that the passion he poured out was not created for the stage, it was created for his drink. “Your creation must have a part of you, an emotional part,” he says. His drink “Unión” uses ingredients from various countries as a metaphor for bringing people together without borders. “I connected to my family, since many of my cousins left the country searching for the American Dream. I connected to the pain of absence and loss; the family element was essential to me”
What I take from Jorge is that the most successful work involves a relationship between author and creation. “It begins when you’re researching. Going to the market, choosing ingredients. Where that lime comes from, for example, is already building on the story the cocktail tells” Falling in love with your project makes a lot of sense. After all, when a drink is successful, the bartender will have to make it over and over, just like a musician is expected to play his hit song at every show. “Whenever I make one of those drinks it connects me to where I was in life at the time I came up with it. When people enjoy the drink, they adopt it into their lives. Sometimes they tell me they made it at home, so that means that your cocktail can have a life of its own way beyond you. This is how people remember you. When you help them build memories, you are building a legacy for yourself. “