In its highest form, bartending is an intimate, one-to-one experience. A bartender reads your preferences and desires, and with deft dexterity pulls from a full range of ingredients behind the bar to craft something that speaks to your tastes. It’s a casual, two-way conversation. Gone for the most part are the days of uniformed bartenders speaking in hushed tones, moving into the background once the drink is made. These days, we expect the best bartenders to be accessible – our friend who happens to have an encyclopedic knowledge of spirits and cocktails, while retaining a certain edginess and maybe a few tattoos hinting at interesting stories.
In this light, it’s a bit surreal to be sitting among several dozen of the most innovative bartenders from around the world–not across the bar at their home bases in London, Amsterdam, New York, or Bangkok, but rather, in a former U.S. Federal Reserve building in San Francisco. All are impeccably dressed in suits. One by one, eight of them climb onto stage, a backdrop of mirrors and dozens of Bacardi rum bottles arranged in rows for maximum visual wow factor. After carefully arranging the proper ingredients necessary to make exactly two cocktails, they spend a precise seven minutes presenting their story while crafting two identical cocktails. In front of them, seated in giant overstuffed leather chairs, are four of the most famous people in the spirits and bartending world, judging their every move and utterance. It’s a far cry from sitting with these talented competitors at their own bars. Nonetheless, their presentation, storytelling, and cocktail may well turn one of them and their carefully honed recipe into a household name in the global cocktail community. Their winning cocktail–featuring Bacardi rum, of course–will become a cornerstone of their legacy, hence the competition’s name: the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition.
Bacardi is the largest rum producer in the world, and its parent company, Bacardi Limited, owns a stable of other world famous brands like Dewars, Bombay Sapphire, and Grey Goose. They have plenty of money to slosh around, and they don’t hold back at Bacardi Legacy, effectively staging a week-long takeover of one of San Francisco’s most prestigious hotels, the Intercontinental Mark Hopkins, sitting atop Nob Hill with uninterrupted panoramic views of the San Francisco Bay Area. The event also acts as a company gathering for Bacardi executives, brand ambassadors, and other VIPs, all milling about at the Mark Hopkins. Yes, this event is an expensive proposition, to say the least.
Naturally, a multi-day event like this means parties, dinners, and organized outings. Into this mix of hundreds of contestants and VIPs, Bacardi (through its assorted PR firms around the world) adds in journalists and media types from across the globe to observe, report, tweet, photograph, and join in the festivities. And that is how I, your intrepid blogger and Instagrammer, found myself suddenly thrust into a four-day maelstrom, a world very different than my usual life of spirit reviews, distillery write-ups, and researching Jamaican sugar industry history. Even we media guests were put up at the Mark Hopkins, including breakfasts and lunches in the Top of the Mark restaurant with 360 degree views of the region. Not too shabby.
There are any number of large scale, international cocktail competitions – Diageo World Class, Bols Around the World, and Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender are just a few of the others in the same realm as Bacardi Legacy. It’s easy to take a jaded, cynical view of these brand sponsored competitions. You might think they’re pure marketing, with the brands reaping benefits from the hard work, creativity, and publicity generated by swarms of unpaid contestants. While this may be true, it’s only part of the story.
Bacardi Legacy is a young person’s game. It’s rare to find an already established, rock star bartender in the competition. Contestants, having emerged past the first few rounds, get to hitch their name and original cocktail to the Bacardi brand. While competitors may be well known within their local bartending community, Bacardi Legacy enables them to travel to other locales and create new relationships with other, like-minded bartenders and industry influencers. Many travel around their home country for guest bartending gigs. And at the finals level, Bacardi assists with the promotion of the entries. So yes, Bacardi benefits from all their efforts–but the contestants also reap invaluable experiences in their (mostly) young careers.
The Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition starts with 10,000 entrants from across the globe. Each contestant creates their own recipe, gives it a hopefully memorable and inspiriting name, and then sells that cocktail to the judges. Competitions start at the local level and progress through national competitions to select the final 36 national champions, plus one representing cruise ships – a nation unto itself. At the Global Finals, this time here in San Francisco, national winners come together to pitch their drink yet again. In the semifinal rounds, a panel of cocktail world luminaries whittle the starting 36 down to eight finalists over two days of intense tasting and judging. The next day, the remaining eight present their drink one last time to a completely different set of judges. The winning cocktail becomes the target of Bacardi’s efforts to make the cocktail a new modern classic, in league with drinks like the Old Cuban and the Maid Cuba, itself a past winner of the competition.
Competing at Bacardi Legacy is much, much more than simply creating a recipe that wows the judges. You can likely go to any craft cocktails bar around the world and find outstanding, never-before-seen cocktails. To win Bacardi Legacy, the drink must feature one or more of Bacardi’s mainstream rums: Carta Blanca (white), Carta Oro (gold), or Carta Negra (black). The recipe must also be readily reproducible in bars around the world – a true classic can be made anywhere. That means you’ll lose points if your recipe requires hard-to-get, seasonally unavailable, or challenging to make custom ingredients. You can enter the competition with whatever ingredients you wish, but if your drink includes something like duck-fat washed Bulgarian plum wine syrup, you likely won’t progress beyond the initial rounds.
Beyond just creating an innovative, easy to replicate recipe, contestants also must create a compelling story about the drink and its name. Alluding to childhood memories is a common theme, as is drawing from adversity or challenges that have been overcome, either by the contestant or by someone they admire. By the time contestants have reached the national finals level, they should be promoting their drink via social media, including individual Facebook pages for each drink. Bacardi helps with this, creating glamour shots for each competing drink in a distinctive house style like this:
Highly crafted drink recipe and inspiring story in hand, contestants now have seven minutes to present the story to the judges while crafting their drink. By the time a bartender has made it to the global finals, every line is memorized, and every beaker, glass, bottle, spoon and garnish has an exact location. Each move and spoken line is crisp and precise—this is as much a performance as it is crafting a drink. Any hesitation or fumbling means points off. Each contestant makes two identical drinks, which are immediately presented to the judges for evaluation.
I landed at the Bacardi Legacy festivities a few hours after the start of the semi-final on Friday afternoon. Held in one of the hotel’s larger event rooms, Legacy happens on an elevated stage lined with scores of Bacardi bottles. Sitting a few feet away at a table are the semi-final judges: Martin Cate of Smuggler’s Cove, Previous Legacy winner Tom Walker, Speed Rack founder Ivy Mix, and Global Rum Ambassador Ian Burrell, intently watching the current contestant. I slip into a chair near the back of the room near several other media attendees, and begin to take it all in.
After watching a few rounds, I pieced together the logistics of working through 36 competitors in just two days. Every fifteen minutes, a new bartender takes the stage, accompanied by an assistant carrying a crate of supplies. For the first two minutes, they set up the presentation, every glass, spoon, bottle, and garnish in its rehearsed location. Meanwhile a rousing video, created by Bacardi for each contestant, plays on screens on either side of the stage. Around the room, three clocks count from 2:00 down to 0:00, after which they reset to seven minutes–and the contestant launches into their presentation. At the start of the final six minutes, an assistant swoops in to deliver the two completed cocktails to the judges, who must work quickly and accurately to get their scores into their iPads before the cycle begins anew. Judging a cocktail competition at this scale is a lot harder than people think! At Friday night’s dinner after the first day of semi-finals, Martin Cate shared with me the perils of palate burnout, especially with so many citrus forward drinks.
Each contestant’s presentation is unique and compelling. Some speak for a while, then focus on the drink. Others talk and work in concert the entire time. All have a story to tell about their drink’s name and inspiration. Many cited childhood experiences: A visit to an amusement park explains how Norway’s Moe Aljaff came to use dulce de leche in his drink called the Carousel. Australia’s Andrew Bennet cited movies as his childhood escape, leading to him using muddled popcorn in his cocktail, The Seventh Art, garnished with a micro-sized, Bacardi-logoed box of popcorn. Not surprisingly, the person nearly every bartender weaved into their presentation was Don Facundo Bacardi, who started the company in 1862. I lost track of how many times I heard about Facundo leaving his homeland of Spain for Cuba, or about Bacardi’s being forced out of Cuba by Fidel Castro in 1960.
A few contestants enthusiastically interacted with the judges and crowd. One went so far as to display framed photos of each semi-final judge on the bar top, working a story about each photo into his presentation. And the famous “Crazy Al” Smuggler’s Cove Tiki mug made an appearance in at least two presentations, playing to owner Martin Cate, one of the semi-final judges. The focused intensity of the presentation comes to a head when the contestant began whipping their shaker about. The room consistently erupted in cheers, or in the case of the U.S’s GN Chan, gasps as he dropped his shaker. Luckily, he recovered quickly and with little detriment to his ultimate outcome in the competition.
While all the attention was focused on the stage, we media folks camped out in the back, snapping photos, posting to social media, and gossiping during the six minute intervals between competitors. In unusual circumstances like Legacy, bonds form quickly. In short order, we U.S.-based media guests formed a pack of wildly disparate characters. Annabel, a U.K. transplant to New York, writes for the Daily Mail. Haley, a freelancer, is on assignment from Thrillist. Crystal is an assistant editor at Liquor.com. Fellow Seattle cocktail blogger Natalie of BeautifulBooze writes a cocktail recipe centric blog and has a widely followed Instagram account. Kevin, of CocktailEnthusiast, also writes for Urbandaddy. And last, but certainly not least, our PR contact and defacto minder is Nicole, who handles Bacardi’s U.S. PR work. Other than while in our hotel rooms, our media pack hung together, eating, travelling, watching sessions, attending parties and round tables, and consuming a never ending stream of Bacardi cocktails.
Saturday, day two of the competition, started a bit slow for your intrepid blogger, as the prior evening’s last stop was Pagan Idol, a dangerous proposition for a Tiki aficionado. Rallying with a quick breakfast the Top of the Mark (“Sunlight… too bright… more coffee, please!”), I made the 9:30 AM start of the semifinals, which finally wrapped up around 4 PM.
During lunch and two short breaks I used the opportunity to scope out and photograph the behind-the-scenes activity. Adjoining the event room was a preparation and practice area, which was great for capturing competitors up close and in a more relaxed environment than the bright lights of the stage bar. Another event room functioned as a photo studio for “behind the bar” shots of the contestants once they finished their presentation.
Semi-final rounds completed, we had a few hours’ gap before the Finalist announcement dinner, so some of our media pack made the obligatory pilgrimage to Trick Dog, one of the World’s best bars, known for its quirkily themed menus that change every six months. Current menu: “Top Secret,” presented in a manila folder stuffed with classified, heavily redacted conspiracy theory documents.
Trick Dog visit complete, a short walk took us to Wildhawk, a promising new vermouth-focused bar new to the San Francisco scene. I was truly among my people on this outing–for once I wasn’t the only person at the bar, camera phone in hand, rearranging bottles, menus, and other bar top items to create the perfect Instagrammable shot. The verdict on Wildhawk? Unanimous approval. Reluctantly we closed our tab in time to make it back to the Mark Hopkins to depart for the evening’s dinner event.
The finalist announcement dinner at Folsom Street Foundry was a family style dinner, where your family consists of dozens of bartenders and hundreds of spirits industry VIPs. The competitors sat together, occasionally interrupting the overall din of conversation with chants of “Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, … OCHO!!!!” before downing a shot of, wait for it… Bacardi Ocho. Although that particular higher end expression from Bacardi wasn’t eligible for use in competition recipes, I can report that more than a few cases of it were consumed during the festivities.
Dinner completed, the semi-final judges and Bacardi VIPs took the stage to announce the eight finalists who would compete the following evening for a new set of judges. The finalists:
- Australia – Andrew Bennett
- Belarus – Lizaveta Molyavka
- China – Choni Song
- Israel – Bar Shira
- Norway – Moe Aljaff
- Thailand – Mitchell Kai Lum
- UK – Iain Griffiths
- USA – Chia-An (GN) Chan
For most attendees, Sunday was a free day up till the final competition that evening. However, the eight lucky finalists spent the day honing and tweaking their presentation one last time. As for we media types, Bacardi arranged a wacky yet totally enjoyable experience – San Francisco native (Captain) Camper English (Alcademics) served as our guide for an open air, double decker bus tour of San Francisco’s boozy history and highlights. It’s no surprise that a bottle of Bacardi Ocho made the rounds during our windy out and back traversal of the Golden Gate Bridge. Lunch was Mission-style burritos on the lawn at Dolores Park, with sweeping views of the city. My favorite factoid I learned on the bus: The iconic Transamerica Pyramid now stands where the Pisco Punch (a personal favorite of the Wonk) was invented at the end of the 19th century.
You could tell something big would happen Sunday evening as waves of people arrived in the Mark Hopkins lobby, all dressed quite sharply. (Even I managed to dig up a jacket and tie, something rarely required in my everyday life.) A pack of busses whisked us to the Bentley Reserve, aka the old San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank building, a suitably grand example of 1924 architecture and the perfect backdrop for selfies as folks departed the busses.
Inside, the grand, high-ceilinged hall was an approximation of the semi-final competition setup, albeit far nicer, with a mirrored bar backdrop and fancy leather lounge chairs for the judges. A veritable flood of classic Bacardi cocktails including daiquiris and bottled El Presidentes flowed from bars on either side of the room. It wasn’t long before everyone was well lubricated and ready for the final eight to work their magic.
Judges for the grand finals were infamous bartenders Dale DeGroff and Julie Reiner, along with Bacardi Maestro Jose Sanchez Govito and 2015 Bacardi Legacy 2015 winner Franck Dedieu. The eight competitors did a nearly exact replica of their performance in the semi-final rounds, sans shaker dropping in GN Chan’s case. The excitement grew as Moe Aljaff from Norway, Lizaveta Molyavka from Belarus, and GN Chan from the U.S. were called to the stage as the final three. Dale DeGroff took the microphone to announce that the winner was a unanimous choice, after which Franck announced the USA’s GN Chan, from Angel’s Share in New York City, as the winner with his Venceremos cocktail:
- 45 ml BACARDÍ Carta Blanca
- 15 ml coconut liqueur
- 25 ml pineapple juice
- 15 ml cucumber Juice
- 5 ml lime juice
- 1 dash sesame oil
GN was naturally beside himself when he found out he was the winner. Sensing an opportunity, I moved to a spot directly in front of the stage, so was well positioned to capture a number of great shots of GN’s victory moment.
With a new Global Legacy championed crowned, you might think my time at Bacardi Legacy was drawing to a close. Not yet, though! Monday held more media events and fun! Bacardi created a series of round table discussions, dubbed “Fuel the Hustle,” wherein celebrities from the world of art, music, food, and drinks gather for a moderated discussion about their inspirations, and crossover between the aforementioned worlds of music, cocktails, and so forth. The round table is recorded for later viewing on the web as a promotional tool. For this iteration, Spotify’s Zach Pentel hosted a panel featuring Walshy Fire and Jillionaire from the musical group Major Lazer, semi-final judge Ivy Mix, and Steve Schneider from Employees Only in NYC.
I can’t say I had any idea who Major Lazer was prior to the round table, but they have 2.5 million followers on Facebook, so they must be some sort of big deal in the music world. Our media pack lurked near the bar, watching the recorded proceedings while enjoying a never-ending stream of the winning Venceremos cocktail, which we all declared quite tasty. I didn’t come away with any amazing insights worth noting here, but Haley’s writeup for Thrillist features a few quotes from her interview with Walshy and Jillionaire following the session, which you can watch here. After the sitdown discussion, Ivy and Steve teamed up with Jillionaire and Walshy respectively to create two cocktails inspired by them.
A recent addition to Bacardi’s marketing is their Bacardi House Party series, basically pop-up, dance music centric events at locales around the U.S. It’s no surprise the Bacardi Legacy would end with a Bacardi House Party, held at Firehouse 8 in San Francisco. The music was pumping, bartenders were dancing, and Bacardi cocktails were flowing as our media pack arrived fresh from the round table. Major Lazer would arrive at some point to take over the musical duties, but by that point I was safely tucked away in a town car, headed to SFO.
On the short flight home to Seattle, I finally had some quiet moments to reflect on the experience. My four days watching the competition as a media guest were exhausting, yet educational, and my slightly cynical nature found myself inspired by the stories and presentation of the candidates. Although there was only one winner, it’s easy to imagine quite a few of them transitioning into ambassador roles for Bacardi or another brand. It was definitely a huge change of pace, and I consider myself privileged to be given the chance to experience it up close and personal.