The Grand Prix Finalists: How They Were Picked

19 Apr. 2018
Here's how 40 of the world's best bartenders booked their flight to Havana

In six weeks exactly, 40 bartenders from all over the world will be sweating over their creation and their presentation at the 2018 Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix in Cuba. They’ll have to convince a panel of stellar judges that they are worthy of advancing to the final. All of them won their national heat, but the international stage is of course the toughest of them all. Since most competitors have already been picked, we thought it was about time for us to tell you how exactly they were selected.
So, how did it go? Well, things vary from country to country. There were some common factors, though. Every single finalist was selected through a competition.  No one will arrive at the Grand Prix without having struggled against his or her peers. And every national competition followed the basic rules of this year’s Grand Prix: create a future Cuban rum classic with 5 ingredients max. It had to be original, easy to make and replicable. For inspiration, bartenders had to dive into ‘Cuba Moderna’, this year’s theme. And because sustainability and recycling is of the utmost importance (all over the world, really, but especially in Cuba), they were also asked to use one ingredient twice (for example, lime juice + lime zest in a homemade cordial). Many countries also counted on the presence on their judging panel of one of Havana Club’s two Global Brand Ambassadors, Meimi Sanchez and Audrey Hands.
Most countries picked the finalists for the national heat on the basis of the recipes they had submitted online previously. The lucky ones were invited to present their drinks to a jury and a winner was named. Simple and efficient. Some, though, went one step further. This was the case of the UK: the 12 finalists prepared (and were scored for) their cocktail, but they were then asked to compete in a second round where they had to come up with a drink from scratch, using one ingredient at least thrice (you read that right: thrice, not twice). That is one hell of a tough challenge. We think it should help them once faced with Cuba’s reality.
Since Cuba Moderna is not an easy theme, especially if you’ve never visited the island and only know it through its clichés, some countries decided to help out setting up a mentor program. In France, a team of five of the best national bartenders was put together. Led by Julien Escot, the 2012 Grand Prix winner, they were sent to Havana where the Havana Club team made them discover ‘Cuba Moderna’. Back home, they were there to guide and inspire their candidates. And now that the French finalist has been chosen, she knows she can count on a reliable network of knowledgeable people to get that little head start in Cuba.
In Germany, they go even further: their competitor is traditionally selected during Academia del Ron, a three-day competition. The national finalists are treated to seminars and challenges on all things rum, bar, gastronomy, etc. (they even have Tai Chi workshops). This, in itself, is quite something. But things didn’t start there: all Academia entrants were picked through a road show across the whole country. It stopped in six cities, and the finalists selected in each of them were mentored all the way to the Academia by a leading local bartender. When they reached the national final, they already knew quite a bit about Cuba, its rum and its cocktails thanks to their mentor and their teachers (national brand ambassador Christian Balke and previous Academia winners). Things don’t stop there either: once picked, the Academia winner enters a special program designed to help her focus, relax, act, get even better at drinksmaking and learn some Spanish (!). As Christian aptly sums up: “We really want to win this year!”. No pressure, then (to be honest, Academia winners usually do very well indeed at the Grand Prix).
You’re reading this, you’re a finalist and you’ve ‘just’ been picked through the normal, more basic, route? Fret not: Cuba is the great leveller and nothing is set in stone. Think about this: the wildcard winner didn’t compete face to face (his cocktail was reproduced by a professional bartender and tasted by a jury) and can’t count on mentors. And yet, both in 2014 and 2016, against all odds, he made his way to the final 12 bartenders. No mean feat.

François Monti