Mixing it up at the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix

by Joanna on December 9, 2009

mojitoThose of you who follow us on Twitter might have noticed a reoccuring hash tag yesterday of "cockchamp".

This was, of course, us reporting live and on the sport from the New Zealand heat of the Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix held at Betty’s. Ten of the best bartenders from around the country battled it out for the chance to represent NZ at the world wide finale in Havana next May.

You may already know that Clare Harlick from the Matterhorn won, but what went on at the competition and at the VIP after-party? Read on!

One of the few positives about being made redundant (that’s right folks, I’m available for hire!) is that when really difficult Wellingtonista assignments like having to drink mojitos at 1pm in the afternoon come along, I am able to man up and take one for the team. I also took along Kim as my official photographer. She said she was unfamiliar with gonzo journalism, so as the first tray of Dark & Stormies (Havana Club with ginger beer, lime and bitters) came around, I decided it was high time to teach her. That process was a little hindered when the next tray of drinks was dropped before I got my second, but soon enough I had an amazing mojito with which to drown my sorrows, and the competition began in earnest! While we shook our minature maracas and images of Cuba were projected across the walls, each bartender had ten minutes to make three cocktails featuring Havana Club rums, of course, and present them to the judging panel of Rex Morgan, from the Boulcott Street Bistro, Riki Carter, reigning Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix NZ winner 2007 and Mixologist – Chris Harrop, New Zealand Bartender of the year 2008.

First up was Dickie Cullimore from E Studios in Chch . He tried to win us over by complimenting the weather in Wellington but really, he needn’t have bothered given that his entries consisted of a Smoked Cedar Daquiri, a Pink Squirrel Sour and a Rum & Raisin Re-Fashioned, all of which sounded divine.

Hometown favourite Jonny Mckenzie for Hawthorn was up next, pouring out frozen champange for the judges (and getting in the first of many obvious product placement shout-outs to Pernod-Ricard) to freshen up their palates. While he was crushing up chargrilled pineapple with cajun spices, he told a story about losing his job at El Floriditas in Havana for refusing to blend daquiris (I can’t promise you that’s actually true though) and said he was going to make up for it by blending his drink today. With the clock ticking down and the blender motor whirring but not grinding, we were on the edge of our seats like we were at a Richter City match as he moved to shake instead. Still, his mix of rum and chocolate and coconut liquer topped up with Tuatara Porter was probably my favourite cocktail that I got to try a minute amount of on the day.

I wondered if Ben Simpson from Motel would be able to make three drinks in ten minutes because I’ve always had unbelievelably slow service there, but he seemed to be on fine form, mixing strawberries, balsamic vinegar and basil with seven-year-old rum. Kim, Laura and I giggled like schoolgirls at the squelchy sounds of the strawberries being pounded in the shaker, partly because of the mojitos and partly because of our use of #cockchamp for twittering updates, but mostly because it turns out that bartenders are even more filthy-minded than I am. We appreciated what he was going for with his attempt at recreating a mojito made with fresh sugar cane juice using lemongrass instead, but because that was just a strawful to taste, I think that the regular Mojitos that the Betty’s staff brought around with quite peppery mint were the real winners. Yes, I sometimes go for quantity over quality. So shoot me.

When Jason Clarke from De Bajo in Queenstown stepped up, we were informed that his mother was in the audience about to see him make cocktails for the first time. He told us that he’d literally give his left nut to get to go to Cuba, and it was suggested that he garnish his drinks with it. I hope his mother was proud of him as he told us that he makes pina coladas for young girls who then turn to putty in his hands. Apparently the secret ingredient isn’t actually rohypnol, it’s a homemade white chocolate vodka. He also makes his own grenadine, which seems to me to be going above and beyond the call of duty. His pina colada looked amazing, fluffed up through a canister and served in an old-fashioned milk bottle topped up with ginger beer.

James Goggin from Racket in Auckland had an Irish accent so he was quick to tell us that he has not been molested by a priest. He had, however, apparently molested the MC into carrying a red ice egg in his ass across the country. His drinks were heavy on the bitters and were the most alcoholy-tasting of the session. James had also managed to find something he called Ninja Mint, which looked like ecualyptus and smelled like mint crossed with basil. It made me hungry for Thai food. Luckily we had bread and dips by that stage, although they were eaten almost as quickly as we drank our mojitos.

Next up we had another local, Calem Chadwick from the Matterhorn. He spoke about Ernest Hemmingway, and made us hungy with his cinnamon smoke that wafted through the bar. His presentation was impressive, but he ran out of time. The Masked Barfly was amused to hear that apparently it’s very hard to use nitrous foamers at the’ho cos the staff keep inhaling them all. Who knew?

Although apparently the bartenders were supposed to stay away from political statements, Tim Miller from Mea Culpa in Auckland still named his first drink Raoul’s Folly. It was delightfully savoury with fresh thyme and pepperdews pounded up with a little chocolate and chilli.

Charles Gillet from Toast in Christchurch was certainly not the tallest bartender in the competition, which he emphasised at the end of the time by standing on a Havana Club box to finish off his drinks. His self depracation continued with his Bro-jito, in which he muddled watermelon & watercress, topped it up with L&P, garnished it with toast in the shape of a pig’s head in order to push the Boil-Up theme and threatened it with a can of Tui – yeah right!

I asked Sally from Mighty Mighty if she was competing, but she was just along to support all the other hospitality people. The only female in the competition was Claire Harlick also from the Matterhorn. She riffed on the Mary Pickford, which use"a shitoad of rum & a shitload of sugar". She was nervous, but still capably poured flaming rum from jug to jug, focusing more on being very professional and making good drinks rather than entertaining the crowd.

The last competitior was in very strong constrast. Kyle from Havana Bar had been in transit for 36 hours after losing his luggage in Mexico on the way back from Cuba. He didn’t let that stop him, as he flourished a megaphone, sauteed a cigar in a pan of rum to get it smokey, and popped a great number of cherries with his little prick before he brought in the big wood. The hilarious smut bubbled over into his shaking technique – “Some people like to use their sex face when they shake. I like to use my detective face like I’m looking for clues. Which is also my sex face, as it happens”. As the orange flower water slopped around, he acknowledged that he wasn’t going to win. But he certainly seemed to be having a good time as he did it, as we were watching.

The competition was supposed to run from 1-4pm, but it was 5.30 when we tumbled out into the street for the break before the VIP Awards night. We returned to Betty’s at 7pm for more Havana Club-based drinks and amaaaaaaaaaaaazing finger food – tuna tartare spoons, duck roulande, tomato tarts. Oh, and for the results, of course. Claire took out the top prize, while Tim came in second, meaning he also gets to go along to Havana to be a rum cady. Everyone was in top spirits, and it seemed to be somewhat of a love-in. Jonny in particular cemented his TAWA nominations for best service by ensuring that we always had drinks, even though it wasn’t even his bar. The Masked Barfly observed how it was kind of awesome to be more sober than the bartenders for once. In fact, it was all very awesome. Wonderful drinks were made, wonderful times were had, and The’Ho once again takes its place on the world stage of hospitality. Thanks Havana Club!

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