Sancti Spiritus is a small, 500 year-old provincial town in central Cuba. It has a couple of beautiful churches, a stunning old bridge and a nice colonial square. As of the 3rd of June, tourist guides can add another attraction: Amaury Cepeda, the bartender of the Taberna Yayabo, located right by the river that runs through the city, has won the 11th Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix, finishing ahead of over 40 contestants from all over the world. We met with Amaury a few minutes after he was announced the winner. He was sharing with the other competitors the bottle of Havana Club Máximo he had just been rewarded with: “We’ve been sharing stuff the whole week”, he characteristically said. “There was no rivalry, we talked about our ideas and learned from each other. I was a bit apprehensive at first, but real friendships were born. I had never gotten to know so many people from abroad, it was such a magnificent experience”.
Earlier in the day, he had been making his cocktail, the Cunyaya, for the jury in front of a rapt audience. “When I got on stage, the crowd really helped, they were cheering, and I felt at home, 100% Cuban, and completely relaxed”, he told us. His presentation was mesmerizing, not least for the little contraption he had built to press sugar cane à la minute. For his cocktail, he decided to go with “what was most Cuban: I had to use fresh sugarcane, honey, cigar… I served it in a earthenware cup, which is very typical of the afrocuban culture I wanted to honour”. The Cunyaya, closely related to the Canchanchara, is Amaury’s tribute to the slaves who were brought to Cuba to work in the sugarcane fields.
This, of course, was not Amaury’s first competition. “I’ve been a bartender for 16 years”, he told us. “I started in a very humble bar: local beers, local rums, everything cheap. And I thought that if I wanted the clients to come back, I needed to offer something extra. So I decided to mix cocktails, and I became a member of our bartenders association”. It was then natural for Amaury to take part in local competitions. “And I won them, which is when I thought that maybe I was good at it”, he laughed. “At first, I did it just to learn and get ideas from others, but you always want to do well – especially since in Cuba you have to buy your ingredients yourself, and we can’t afford to throw away money!”. Last year, Amaury won the Fabio Delgado trophy, the most prestigious Cuban competition. “They told me ‘oh, by the way, this means you’ll compete at the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix, and I thought: ‘what am I going to do there?’ I just decided I’d give it my all.”
Give his all, he certainly did, although he never expected to be selected among the top 13, let alone win it: “I was completely shocked to go through the final, I really didn’t expect it. Once it sunk in, I just thought I’d do the same thing, but with a lot more heart!”. Obviously, Amaury’s heart was big enough to give him the energy he needed to overcome the other competitors… It is quite a wonderful story, when you come to think of it: it proves that, to be one of the best at what you do, you don’t necessarily have to be in one of the big cocktail cities. A lot of hard work and creativity can sometimes be enough. We’re really excited to see where his dedication and talent will bring him next. We certainly haven’t heard the last from Amaury Cepeda…
45ml Havana Club 7 Year Old
2 dashes Havana Club Essence of Cuba Island Fruit
7,5ml sour orange
60ml fresh sugar cane juice
Method: Mix all ingredients and serve over ice
Garnish: Stick of natural sugar cane and sour orange spiral. Serve in clay cup placed on a small plate decorated with a tobacco leaf