Expect the Unexpected

4 May. 2018
Three finalists tell us what you should and shouldn't do at the Grand Prix

Expect the unexpected
So you’ve made it through the national finals, you have your ticket to Havana and a recipe you’re quite proud of? You feel it’s the next Cuban classic and that it manages to epitomize Cuba Moderna? What could go wrong? Well, truthfully, everything. Basically, we could refer you to the title of this article and leave it at that. But since at Bar News, we’ve seen a few concepts land at José Marti Airport and crash on arrival, we asked three ex-competitors to share their insight. They all agree on one thing: don’t come with a drink in mind. Beyond that? Well, let’s see…
First, you’d be well advised to bring a basic bar tool kit with you. Sourcing replacements won’t be easy. This, however, is not a huge problem according to our sources. “Less is more. The more tools you need the greater the chance something will go wrong”, says Jhonny Rivera, 2016 finalist. Finalists are all “experienced bartenders, they can do miracles with a shaker and a mixing glass”, adds Alex Sourmpatis, 2014 finalist and 2016 Bar Team member. For 2014 Grand Prix winner Andy Loudon, “using equipment you’re comfortable with will help you make better drinks”. Ok, so that’s settled: travel light, with tools you’re familiar with. This bit, at least, you can control.
It’s, of course, harder to control your ingredients. Although competitors are always forewarned, you don’t really understand Cuba’s extreme seasonality until you’re on the ground. Ask Alex, who wanted to work with pink grapefruits for his drink. He is still looking for them. According to Jhonny, bartenders should research the most common ingredients in Cuba and taste them. Bear in mind, though, that the flavours vary strongly: “Pineapples are sweeter, limes are much more citrus-forward and lemons are almost impossible to find”.
The fact that all competitors will work with the same pool of ingredients also creates a creative conundrum: “Lots of people will use honey or coffee”, says Andy, “they’re delicious but very easy ingredients to reach for as a bartender. Take notice of the popular flavours within the group and be original”.  This is not always possible, so Alex suggests that you also spend some time on what happens outside of the glass: “You have to stand out with the same ingredients. Come up with an amazing story, take in everything that Havana has to give and use your personality to deliver a unique experience to the judges”.
That’s great, but you won’t impress anyone with your great formula and unique storytelling if the drink is over-diluted or too warm. Temperature and humidity in Havana can kill cocktails. There’s a high chance that the prep room and the competition hall won’t have the same air conditioning. And the ice, well… let’s just say it doesn't come from a Hoshizaki machine. Jhonny, who’s Colombian, knows the problem quite well: “In tropical climates, the alcohol flavour becomes prominent because of the temperature, the fruits taste sweeter and ice dilutes very fast”. It really is a challenge to come up with something that stays cold long enough without being watery. Here, practice makes perfect: test and test again while you’re developing your final recipe.
There’s not much more we can say – we don’t want to spoil the surprise. Still, here are a couple of parting recommendations. Ahead of your trip, Alex thinks you should find out “as much as you can about Cuban drinks and culture”. It should help you finding your feet – and inspiration – quicker. Once in Cuba, you have a very short time to come up with your recipe. Both Alex and Jhonny agree: don’t be influenced by what the others are doing. It’s your show, not theirs. And even if you think everything is fine, have a plan B or C. You don’t want to have to improvise if this or that doesn’t work, whatever the reason. “Have a back up plan”, concludes Andy. “From the moment you step off the plane, inspirations and thoughts should be gathering momentum”.

François Monti