His summary of this year's Grand Prix is as good and concise as you’re likely to get: “a lot of people and very good spirits”.
One of the big changes at this year’s Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix was the decision to open the competition to more Caribbean countries and islands. It made sense in many ways: you want to have good relations with the neighbours, host bartenders used to work with great rum and similar produce and turn the spotlight towards a corner of the world that is all too often forgotten by the people who come up with cocktail maps… In fact, most observers probably didn’t expect Caribbean bartenders to leave a big impression. In that sense, a cocktail competition is a bit like the football World Cup: you always tend to look at the big countries. So maybe our version of Costa Rica was the Cayman Islands. Thanks to Alessandro Palumbo, they claimed third place.
When we met Alessandro, it was party time in Havana. The Havana Cultura artists were giving their best on stage and quite a few competitors were dancing on the dance floor. Understandably, our man of the moment felt the call of the night but he still gave us a few minutes of his time. He felt elated by the result. “It’s a great pleasure. Being in the last 16 is already fantastic but finishing third is amazing. Of course, the goal you set yourself when you arrive is first place. I’ll take third”, he said.
Hailing from Salerno, Italy, Alessandro started bartending in London 10 years ago. He built quite an impressive CV, with stints at places such as The Lonsdale or VOC, where he worked with barrel-aged cocktails. However, what caught our attention were the lengthy spells he spent behind the bars of some of London’s top Japanese restaurants. From Zuma to Flesh & Buns, Alessandro made a name for himself as quite the sake expert. Of course, Japanese gastronomy is known for its great respect for ingredients, and it probably helped Mr Palumbo in Cuba, where the idea was to keep it simple.
And indeed he did: “The cocktail was just made with basic ingredients anybody can find in Cuba: coffee beans, honey, mint leaves. Shake it very hard with Havana Club Añejo 7 Años and there you go”. Even the name he chose was low-key: his cocktail was called El Cantinero. And it was perfect.
When we wondered what had led him to leave London and Japanese restaurants for the Cayman Islands, Alessandro laconically answered, “I like the sun”. Whatever the reason, he is indeed working at the moment at Agua Restaurant & Lounge, a bar and restaurant in George Town. “It’s near the beach. With my colleagues we have complete freedom, so we can buy products, do the cocktails we want, it’s great”.
The self-confessed Gin & Tonic fan (his Cuban favourite is El Presidente) will apparently be moving back to the UK soon. You can be assured he’ll take some of his Cuban and Caribbean experiences with him. His summary of the week is as good and concise as you’re likely to get: “a lot of people and very good spirits”.
60 ml Havana Club Añejo 7 Años
10 ml Honey
2 barspoons coffee beans
4 mint leaves
Shake all ingredients with ice, double strain in coupette and garnish with a coffee bean