Outstanding rums, iconic bitters, a delicious Amaro, hypnotic steel bands, gorgeous sunshine, breath-taking scenery, not just one but two amazing carnivals and a whole lot of big fun. It can only be one thing – the final of the Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge 2018.

The Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge started out rather modestly in the Robinson Crusoe Pub, at the Hilton Tobago, back in 2001. Since then it’s grown into one of the most important events on the international cocktail calendar. And we’ve been lucky enough to follow it, first hand, since 2012. So when we landed in Trinidad this year we were expecting big things. And the Angostura team delivered big time.

The eleven bartenders who descended on the island were in for the experience of their lives. Yes, there was the competition itself, but just as important, they were introduced to the unique culture of Trinidad and hospitality as warm as the country’s sunshine from the fine folk of Angostura.

First up they were taken into the very home of the iconic Angostura aromatic bitters discovering the story behind that over-sized label and a whole lot more. Then it was on to the rum distillery to learn about the extensive rum portfolio, under the watchful eye of Master Distiller John Georges.

A journey into the hills took them to a sumptuous fine dining and Angostura rum pairing in an exclusive location overlooking the sea. They also got the chance to join spectators for the National Panorama Finals. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to enjoy a steel band live you’ll know it’s a totally individual sound. Chances are, though, that you saw a dozen or so players hitting the drums. Just imagine that sound magnified ten times or more. The sound is off the scale.

Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge 2018 Steel Band

Now, that’s what we call a steel band

The bartenders also got to enjoy something else for which the country is internationally famous. We’re talking carnival… First there was a chance to celebrate J’ouvert. This is a wholly unique experience which kicks off in the middle of the night (3am to be precise)and takes a procession of revellers around the city. There’s rum and there’s music. There’s also a whole lot of mud and paint. It’s crazy, messy and full-on fun. With less than a day to catch  breath (thoughtfully spent relaxing ‘down de islands’) it was then time to “play ’mas” in full costume on Carnival Tuesday. This is the main event with more rum and more music, but now it’s all about good times in the sunshine.

At the heart of it all, though, was the bartenders reason for being there: the final of the competition.

Taking place in the House of Angostura (top), our 11 bartenders had already come a long way, not just in terms of air miles but in their respective regional heats. Some 260 bartenders from 47 countries had taken up the original challenge. So to make it through to the last eleven was already an achievement in itself.

The finalists (back, l-r) Ray Letoa, New Zealand; Kishion Guillaume, Trinidad and Tobago; Alexander Kirles, USA; Maximiliano Vallée Valletta, Canada; Thomas Kirk, UK; Pedro Martínez, France; Johnny Mansour, Lebanon; Martin Tummino, Argentina; (front, l-r) Daniel Gregory, Australia; Joshua Ivanovic, Malaysia and Leesha Marcellin, Antigua

They were required to make two cocktails. One featuring a rum from the Angostura portfolio (Angostura 1787, Angostura 1824, Angostura 1919, Angostura Reserva, Angostura White Oak, Angostura 5-Year-Old and Angostura 7-Year-Old). The other showcasing Amaro di Angostura. And both had to feature the all important Angostura aromatic bitters, Angostura orange bitters or a combination of the two.

It wasn’t just their cocktails that were being judged either. While their drinks had to look and taste amazing, as well as demonstrating a good use of Angostura, there were points up for grabs in a whole host of other ways. Were they charming? Could they tell a story? How did they present themselves? How much did they know about rum? And how much did they know about Angostura?

Did someone say pressure?

As they prepared to step behind the bar the judges were settling into their seats and a pretty formidable group they were too. Heading them up was Mike Ryan, Director of Bars at Kimpton Hotels. Alongside him were leading bartender and flavour expert Monica Berg, JJ Goodman, founder and owner of The London Cocktail Club bar group, Sandrae Lawrence of The Cocktail Lovers, Neal Ramdhan, Angostura Global Brand Ambassador and current Angostura Global Cocktail Champion, and Carol Homer-Caesar, Senior Manager – Blending, New Product Development and Quality Assurance, Angostura Limited. As we said, pressure.

Under the watchful eyes of the masters of ceremonies Daniyel Jones, Brand Ambassador Angostura, and Jim Wrigley, Bar Ops Manager Bourne and Hollingsworth Group, we were off.

Across the 11 bartenders and 22 cocktails there were some truly great stories, emotional presentations and a touch of theatre too. As for the drink themselves, outstanding.

Martin Tummino (Argentina) got things under way. He also got the large local crowd on his side as he proudly waved the flag of Trinidad and Tobago as he mixed his cocktails. Thomas Kirk (UK) was quietly confident and mixed two delicious twists on classic cocktails. Local bartender Kishion Guillaume (Trinidad and Tobago), could have won a prize for the best smile as well as as his outstanding swizzle technique.

France’s Pedro Martínez cleverly introduced music into his presentation, likening the ingredients to layers of a music track. Leesha Marcellin (Antigua) was a little nervous but won the audience over with her charisma and determined cocktail shake. In homage to the symbol of Angostura, Alexander Kirles (USA), fashioned a delicate butterfly style garnish. Representing Malaysia, Joshua Ivanovic, evoked his childhood memories in a particularly delicious rum cocktail.

Ray Letoa (New Zealand), introduced a culinary vibe to his cocktail, whisking up his ingredients. (He also wore a very cool suit.) Daniel Gregory (Australia), had clearly done his homework as he delivered a strong knowledge of the country’s history as he mixed his drinks. Johnny Mansour (Lebanon), served up a wonderful twist on the classic Blood and Sand cocktail in his Amaro version dedicated to the host country, Blood and Sun. Rounding things up was Maximiliano Vallée Valletta (Canada), who shared a family heirloom in the shape of an old wooden box, used by his grandfather and father to store memories, and now by him to serve his competition cocktails.

We’ve been fortunate enough to be present at a fair few cocktail competitions but this is amongst the longest we’ve ever known the judges to be out to reach their verdict. That’s how close the result was. Let’s face it, though, there was a lot at stake. One, the title of Angostura 2018 Global Cocktail Challenge Champion. Two, a cheque for US$10,000. And three, a two year contract as the Angostura Global Brand Ambassador for Angostura aromatic bitters, Angostura orange bitters, Angostura Rums and Amaro di Angostura.

Drum roll please, or as they do in Trindid, steel drum role for the winner, Ray Letoa of New Zealand.

Angostura Global Cocktail Competition 2018 winner; Ray Letoa, New Zealand

Angostura Global Cocktail Competition 2018 winner; Ray Letoa, New Zealand

“I’ve won this for my bar, my friends and my family”, said an excited Ray afterwards. “Now I’m taking home the people and the culture of Trinidad, and I’m really looking to forward to spreading the word about Angostura around the world!”

Ray, we know you’re about to embark on two of the most amazing years of your life.

And bartenders of the world, we suggest you watch out for details of the next Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge in 2020.

Find out more at angostura.com.

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