Every two years, bartenders worldwide compete in their local Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix competition for a chance to represent their country at the global finals in Cuba. This year’s Swiss finals took place in Bern from March 4th to 6th.
Among the 11 finalists, some were seasoned competitors. Nicolas Berger from Little Barrel in Geneva had already participated in the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix six years ago. He was also one of the finalists at the Diageo World Class Switzerland 2015 (and successfully coached Sophie Larrouture, the winner for Switzerland in 2016) and the Swiss finalist at the Beefeater Gin World Competition in 2013, to cite only a few of the many competitions he’s participated in. Roger Grüter from Angel’s Share in Basel represented Switzerland at the Chivas Masters world finals last year in Tokyo.
The judges were Rory Shepherd (head bartender at Little Red Door in Paris), Günther Strobl (Swiss Havana Grand Prix winner 2016 and bartender at Campari Bar in Basel) and Dave Wälti (sous chef at the Eisblume restaurant and Marmite Youngster 2016).
On the first day of the competition, the bartenders had to take a sensory test and recognize 9 spirits served in dark glasses. To further induce them in error, there were 12 bottles in front of them. Some from Havana Club, some from competitors, some from other spirits than rum. All the candidates I asked agreed: the blind tasting was quite a tricky challenge !
On the second day, the competitors presented the cocktails they had submitted to enter the competition. The running theme this year was “Cuba Moderna”. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend this stage of the competition. I however asked some of the bartenders about their creations. Nicolas Berger drew inspiration from Cuban cuisine to come up with the recipe for his Little Cuba. He used Havana Club 3 años and mixed it with spicy corn syrup, pineapple juice and rice milk. As sustainability is more and more important in the bartending world, he repurposed jam pots as serving glasses. He also used the leftovers of his syrup’s preparation to make chips to serve with his drink. Georg Haussler from Basel’s Werk8 created a Buchito, a drink with Havana Club 7 años, banana mousse, lime juice, cold brew coffee and cardamome bitters. He served it in the bottom part of an Italian coffee machine. The Buchito should be available at Werk8 until the end of summer.
On the last day of the selection for the final three, the competitors had to pass a speed challenge. In as little time as possible, they had to prepare six classic Cuban cocktails. These were a Mojito, an El Nacional, a Daiquiri, a Havana 7 Old Fashioned, a Canchánchara and an El Presidente. Of course, speed wasn’t everything and judges would also consider the taste of the drinks. Nico Colic from Spitz Bar in Zurich blew everybody’s mind when he managed to serve all his drinks with chasers on the side (!) in approximately 2 min 30 !
After moving to Bern’s Kornhauskeller, the judges announced the names of the three finalists : Jason Knüsel from The Chedi Andermatt hotel, Taweechai Frick from the Carlton Bar Zurich and Nico Colic.
To win the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix Switzerland 2018, Jason, Taweechai and Nico had to create three cocktails to serve with dishes judge Dave Wälti was preparing for the event’s evening guests. They had about 3 hours to rise up to the task, i.e come up with three different recipes, buy the necessary ingredients and serving vessels for the judges and make their preparations and cocktails for the judges and the 30 or so guests ! Not a small feat at all, even though they would each be assisted by a team made of the eliminated competitors.
After a presentation of the three dishes and a quick tasting, discussions followed within each team to come up with recipes. The brainstorming proved successful for everybody: the finalists welcomed their « assistants’ » suggestions and several bartenders got ideas for future creations.
After a small walk around town while the bartenders were preparing their cocktails, I returned to Kronenhalle for the last challenge. Other guests were also arriving to sample the finalists’ cocktails and help elect the winner of the competition. Naturally, their votes wouldn’t have the same weight as those of the professional jury.
Among the guests was his Excellency the Cuban Ambassador who was truly impressed by the passion and the creativity displayed by the finalists. And so was I. In less than 3 hours, they came up with serious recipes, sourced ingredients and glasses in a city most of them weren’t familiar with and cooked up some crazy ingredients. They managed to prepare beer reductions, a rose syrup, a cherry shrub, a red wine foam and even a bread infused rum !
The finalists also paid great attention to their drinks’s presentations. The fish dish was obviously a great source of inspiration. Taweechai served his accompanying cocktail in a transparent glass evoking an aquarium. A metallic fishbone – a node to the fish’s leftovers – was jumping out of the “water”, i.e the cocktail. Some foam reminiscent of the sea foam topped the drink.
Meanwhile, Jason Cuban-rolled his Water of life, inspired by the ocean surrounding Cuba. He served it in a glass painted with squid ink, on top of a blue board representing the ocean water. He accompanied his cocktail with a pirate boat and a small wooden boat containing salmon eggs. Jason’s presentation impressed many people who wondered how he managed to think of and get all of his supplies in the little time he had. The answer: positive thinking and anticipation! With the final win in mind, Jason took a case full of presentation supplies to Bern in the event he was among the three finalists.
Jason’s positive thinking and attitude proved their success as he won the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix Switzerland 2018. He will fly to Cuba in Mato represent Switzerland in the global finals. A true sportsman, Jason profusely thanked his team who had helped him in the last challenge. Together, they came up with the Fruta de la Vida (Havana Club 3 Años, lime squeeze and cherry shrub with a red wine espuma), the Water of Life (Havana Club 3 Años, beer-banana reduction and Gran Classico Bitter) and the Aroma des Lebens (Havana Club 7 Años, homemade rose syrup and aromatic bitters served in a tobacco- smoked glass).
The competition was not just about winning a ticket to Cuba though. It was also about having fun. Each evening of the Swiss finals thus ended in a bar tour of Bern. The last evening was no exception. Quite symbolically, the bartenders (and yours truly, dutifully keeping up with everybody) ended up in Cuba, or rather at Bar Cuba. After three days of meeting old friends, making new ones and working together, they were all winners after all.