I woke up bleary-eyed on the morning of February 15th and staggered across my hotel room to the little coffee machine, hoping caffeine could cure my jetlag.
While it plopped and hissed, I slid open the balcony door and stepped out for the first time into Puerto Rican sunshine.
In front of me was a small, blue bay full of choppy waves, garnished with a perfectly formed rainbow.
A good omen for the first morning of a week-long trip? You betcha…
When I found out there was seat for me on the plane to San Juan with Bacardi Legacy Team UK, I was blown away. The opportunity to follow the competitors during a week of preparation for a big competition is a writer’s dream.
Instead of simply reporting on the results of a cocktail competition, this would be a chance to see how the team bonded, and to get to know them on a more personal level, which would inevitably make me more emotionally invested in the outcome of the contest.
I was wrong about this however. In the end, I realised that it wasn’t the winning drink or country that left an impression on me at all, or indeed how the UK faired. It was two blokes called Tony and Matteo.
This statement at best makes it sound like I developed a man crush, and at worst has Bacardi’s PR people clutching at their chests, so I best explain it pronto.
After breakfast on the first day, Team UK gathered with the rest of the competitors, their ambassadors and a few international media types in the lobby of the Conrad Plaza hotel. We were being bussed to Bacardi’s distillery, the Cathedral of Rum.
As you would expect, the group actually consisted of 26 micro-groups as competitors gathered with people on their own team. Of course, this industry being what is, a few people knew each other from Tales of the Cocktail or international bar shows and said hello.
But the group wasn’t quite cohesive and this, coupled with an element of ‘sizing up the opposition’ and lack of sleep made for a quieter than usual flock of bartenders.
Everyone began to relax a little during the distillery tour. The combination of being on mutual home turf, so to speak, and enthusiasm for what they were seeing had cross-border conversations starting.
The distillery itself is impressive. Two massive wind turbines preside over a huge campus that dwarfs most other distilleries I’ve visited. The ‘Cathedral’ that once housed enormous column stills offers an incredible view over Cataño, which I think finally brought home to everyone that they were actually here and doing it after such a long period of anticipation.
Inside, we met Joaquin Bacardi, who is as tanned and dapper as he sounds, and given the opportunity to ask him some questions. The first of which, “Will Bacardi go back to Cuba?” he answered with:
“There’s no way we will leave Puerto Rico. There is an opportunity for Bacardi in Cuba, but it is a small opportunity. I see a small operation in Cuba, to work on boutique rums.”
You heard it here first folks.
After this, we got stuck into some rum. Any shyness between competitors who didn’t know each other began to fall away, especially when they were presented with a unique bottle, blended by three generations of Bacardi Maestros to mark 150 years of family history.
It’s amazing stuff and if you are lucky enough to come across some, try it at once.
The next few days were taken up with seminars, free time by the pool, rum, food and nights out (it’s this sort of sentence that makes my mum say, ‘yes but what is your actual job’).
Team UK, comprising of competitors Zdenek Kastanek (London), Hayden Scott Lambert (Belfast), Shervene Shahbazkhani (Bacardi UK brand ambassador), Metinee Kongsrivilai (UK finalist 2011) and Gary Moore (Boutique Creative) staged a number of sneak attacks on San Juan’s nightlife.
We found the World’s Best Bar in El Balcon, which afforded cold beer and a great people watching vantage point.
We also found a fantastic Salsa bar that afforded warm beer and embarrassing opportunities for dad dancing, although not in Shervene’s case because she’s got moves.
But most of all, the disparate parties from around the world slowly became one group, which, finally, brings me on to Tony and Matteo.
If you searched the globe for two people as physically different as possible, you would come up with Tony and Matteo. The former is from Vietnam, is tall, thin and gangly. The latter is Italian and spends as much time in the gym as he does behind the bar; he wouldn’t look out of place in an aftershave commercial.
Tony speaks virtually no English, and Matteo isn’t really fluent either. And yet, without being able to properly communicate, they became best friends during the trip.
As the week wore on, and the group became more and more integrated, it turned into a bunch of friends on an adventure, as opposed to competitors trying to beat each other at all costs.
I overheard several people talking about this, trying to think of another industry or even a sport where it would be possible. No-one came up with one. And, as flowery as this might sound, sitting outside a bar one night in the middle of this amazing group of people, and with the Bacardi flowing, I realised I was having the time of my life.
Towards the end of the week, things got a bit more serious again as the semis and final loomed.
Of course, I would have loved to see Zdenek or Hayden bring the trophy home for the UK, but looking in from the outside, it became less and less important who ultimately won. I was probably alone in this however, especially when it was time for the 26 bartenders to step foot on the semi final stage.
The results were to be announced at a gala dinner later that night, which gave everyone several hours to stew on their performances, and you could see tension in a lot of faces.
At the dinner, everyone sat down expectantly, but Bacardi’s global ambassador, David Cordoba, dashed any hope of an imminent decision by announcing:
“Eat, drink, talk to your colleagues. Wait till your tummy is full. Because if we tell you the results now, you might say ‘I don’t want to eat’, so I want you to enjoy yourself and then we will do it. Don’t ask me now, I will tell you I don’t know.”
After what seemed like a year, the results were announced. Our boys made it through, but many others didn’t and it was moving to watch finalists congratulated by, and in turn commiserate with, those whose Legacy journey had ended.
The final, and with it our last night in Puerto Rico, rolled around all too quickly, and at the end of an epic week, the original groups were joined by more supporters and industry types from around the world. Everyone donned glad rags and congregated on the lawn of the Cathedral of Rum to watch the final eight.
In the end, I think it is telling that the winner of the competition was only able to succeed because some of his opponents helped him.
Shingo Gokan, representing the USA but originally from Japan, became so emotional during the part of his presentation that mentioned his homeland’s recent troubles, he looked certain to run out of time and blow his chance.
But at the last minute, several competitors leapt on stage to help him clear away his kit within the time limit, and he went on to claim the Legacy prize. It was something to witness, given the stakes, and there were a lot of moist eyes in the audience.
From my point of view, looking in from the outside, this was in a way the best possible outcome. Having seen the group become so close, the fact that the winning effort was something of a collaborative one seemed fitting.
Whether they intended to or not, for the competitors at least, Bacardi created something in that Legacy competition week that completely encapsulates the bartending community: hospitality, camaraderie and going out of one’s way to make sure someone else has the best possible night.
In the same way that Tony and Matteo could strike up a friendship despite the lack of ability to communicate, the skills that make a bartender good at his or her job are universal. It’s no surprise that a group of 26 such individuals will form an amazing team that ends up working together, and that spending a week with them was one of the most rewarding and enjoyable things I’ve done.
Congratulations to Zdenek, Hayden, Shingo, Tony, Matteo and all of the other competitors on making it to the finals, and for collectively adding their part to the Bacardi Legacy.