Interview: Bacardi Legacy U.S Winners Darnell Holguin and Ryan Wainwright

The United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) last month announced Darnell Holguin (above, left) and Ryan Wainwright (right) as the two winners for the 2017 USBG Legacy Cocktail Showcase. Both bartenders will now travel to Berlin in May as U.S. representatives in the 2017 Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition.

We recently caught up with Holguin of New York City, and Wainwright of Los Angeles, to talk about what the journey means to them.

Cheers: What flavors mix well with rum? What about aged versus white?

Ryan Wainwright: There really aren’t set flavors that mix well with rum. The usual rule of thumb is to use flavors that exist around where the rum is made. If you can imagine what is happening in Puerto Rico right now those are the flavors you would want to work with when mixing up Bacardi. However, I love to challenge this and use more non-traditional flavors like amaro and the like. Really, when you are using a Spanish-style, rum you get so much room to play because it is so versatile.

Darnell Holguin: Rum is such a versatile spirit. It can range from mixing with fruits that have bright acidity like lime, tamarind or passionfruit to deep dark flavors like chocolate, bitters, spices.

Aged rums like Bacardi Ocho pick up amazing aromas and flavors from the barrel it’s aged in. You get flavors like vanilla and baking spices. So they work wonderfully as stirred and boozy cocktails but when it starts with a great base like Superior it still retains its fruit qualities.

What inspired your winning cocktail?

RW: The inspiration for Playa Fortuna is just that: the place.

My drink for Legacy was something totally different until my girlfriend surprised me with two tickets to Puerto Rico as a chance to get away. It was right before the submission deadline and I found myself floating in the waves just off the coast of Playa Fortuna sipping a coconut. It was with that in mind that I wanted to create something that was honestly Puerto Rican. That tipped its hat to all that is Puerto Rico while in the same time never loosing sight of the rum; the true star of the show.

DH: My mother inspired it really.

Every morning for breakfast she would make us this traditional Dominican breakfast drink called Morir Soñando. Which literally translated it means “to die dreaming,” an expression that meant it was to die for. It consisted of orange juice, evaporated milk and condensed milk. It was the best way to start my day.

What does it mean to represent the U.S. in the global finals?

RW: To be able to represent the U.S. and Los Angeles means an insane amount to me. I am so proud to be born and raised here in LA and to be able to bring light to the casual but creative force that is our bar scene. I can’t even begin to express what it means to go compete on a global scale. This is an opportunity I never imagined.

My whole life I have had to deal with many of the same things bartenders deal with. The sort of stigma that comes with being a bartender from family and sometimes friends. It is such an honor to bring a story of honesty to a global scale and I can only thank Bacardi over and over for providing me this opportunity.

DH: I feel like I’m on an Olympic team! Haha. It’s truly an honor and a privilege to represent the U.S. I’m going to Berlin to show the rest of the world what NYC and Dominican Culture has to offer.

What inspires you when creating new cocktails?

RW: I have found that my inspirations come from all angles. My number one inspiration is tasting spirits. I love to sit and taste something and see what triggers of flavors start to go off. I also get very inspired by music, art and just living. I really like my inspirations to come from outside but be routed in the classics. It’s a strange dance I know but the steps make sense to me.

Getting involved in your community is really one of the best inspirations. When you walk to work instead of drive, or maybe take public transportation, your mind starts to run with sights, smells and ideas. Granted, I live in LA, so not all of them are great, but even in the chaos some things will stand out. You just never know.

DH: I draw inspiration from everything around me. My mind works in funky ways. Sometimes it’s a name I wanna use, an ingredient I haven’t used, the profile of a spirit, even a classic. I make cocktails for guests to enjoy, so I look for flavors that can tap into peoples subconscious, if that makes any sense. I want that sip you take to bring you back or awaken your palate.

What advice do you have for aspiring mixologists?

RW: If you are new in this business I challenge you to be silent and listen. I know this sounds kind of like a mean thing to say, but as one who stood silent for a long time it is amazing what you will soak up. Get a job at the place that when you walk in you say, “I have to work here.” When they turn you down, apply again. When they turn you down, tell them you’ll do anything they want. Don’t give up. Do their dishes. Be their best dishwasher ever. Show them by your silence and work ethic that you are someone they need.

Slowly you will grow — both as a person and a bartender. This is the path I took. This is the path I cannot recommend enough. I never said no I just always watched. I learned so much about what I wanted to be and what I never wanted to be. I know this was a question about who to follow on Instagram or what book to read but I challenge you to run into those things as you apply yourself and push yourself. You’ll be amazed at what years of work will build.

I have been doing this over 10 years and I can’t express to new people enough that if you want this to be your industry, your job, you have to invest for the long term. This isn’t a short sprint to the top.

DH: When out in Miami for Legacy, I had the pleasure of meeting someone who told me “the only thing I know, is that I don’t know.” That resonated. It’s important to remember that for everything you may have learned before there is always something you had no idea about. Stay humbled. Seek knowledge and inspiration. If you can’t step out of your comfort zone to ask for help or do something you haven’t done before then how can you appropriately serve a guest.

What’s your take on the state of the craft cocktail movement?

RW: Ah, the current state of drink culture. The age old question. I always feel like a president with this one. “The state of our union is strong.”

Unfortunately for me, I have never been great at generalizations. I think that in anything that is growing at the rate that “craft drinks” are growing you, will have strong and weak areas. There will be people I admire for their knowledge and devotion, people I admire for their creativity and imagination and people I think are trying to make a fast buck on a burgeoning industry.

I will say this: I am really proud to be a bartender and I am proud that so many are giving so much to this industry. Bartending has always been a bit of a sideshow, so it is amazing to see so how far we have brought this out of the shadows. It’s nice to not get asked what my real job is anymore.

DH: I think it’s fair to say today that it’s the new normal for bars. I find that. Just that soon ordering a Negroni or a Daiquiri at one of those bars won’t be too crazy of an idea.

I thought I knew what was happening across the country, but Legacy taught me I don’t know a damn thing. It seems to me that the only difference I could find is that there is more work for them to do to push forward the cocktail movement in certain areas. Which is exciting. So much information out there they bartenders are spreading and pioneering in their perspective areas.

Which mixologists have inspired you?

RW:I would have to say my almost five years at the Tasting Kitchen is probably where I learned the most. I have been doing this for over 10 years, but the time I spent from 2010-2015 there was a huge growing period. It was a truly amazing group of people, albeit a bit of a ragtag group of outcasts in a lot of ways.

The bar was and is helmed by Justin Pike, who had most recently come down from Portland (and his time under Jeffrey Morgenthaler). It was he that ran this group, but I was able to work alongside and learn from some of the biggest unsung heroes of our industry. People that I can genuinely say should be heralded as hospitality elite. Besides Justin there was John Coltharp, Eugene Shaw, Dan Long, Devon Espinosa, John Neumueller, Noelle Chaplin, Mia Andreoli and Longrada Lor.

These are people that truly shaped me in many more ways than they could ever imagine. It was an honor to work alongside them and see what be a true bartender was. To produce and honest drink without pretense or a show. It was about the guest first and then getting that guest the best product.

DH: It starts with Duane Fernandez Jr. He opened all doors and windows into this industry and created an environment for me to flourish. I owe a lot of my career to him. Juan Coronado, the first Dominican mixologist I’ve met. Still killing the game and opening doors. Ariel Suarez, Cliff Mejia, Hector Videla, Elvis Rosario, Veronica Correa are young, driven, passionate mixologists that I’m lucky to call friends and inspire me to do more. Watch out world. They’re coming.

What are your favorite spirits, liqueurs and flavors to work with?

RW: I am a moody drinker. That is what I always say when people ask me for my favorites. I will drink whatever hits the mood. That being said, rum has been my crush for the last two years.

I woke up one day two years ago and realized that I didn’t understand rum at all and it bugged me. So I made it my goal to figure it out. I was really into whiskey then and the idea of rum was one that didn’t really get me excited. It took me a bit of reading, tasting, asking a lot of questions and making a lot of mistakes but now I must say that rum is quite an amazing spirit.

For me being able to go to Puerto Rico and go to the Bacardi distillery was a trek I will never forget. It was such an amazing experience to sit down with the master blenders and distillers and listen to them talk about their work.

DH: I’ve learned that I haven’t been drinking a lot of whiskey as of late. I’ve been gravitating towards rum and gin. Two spirits that have so many different expressions out there now it’s astonishing. I’m a sucker for Luxardo maraschino. It’s just so good!

What are your favorite bars in your area?

RW: Welcome to LA! Please take a load off, call a lyft and get ready for an amazing night.

Must check out:

Downtown: Redbird, Faith and Flower, 71 Above, ERB, Tony’s Saloon.

Mid City: Big Bar, Normandie Club, The Ponte, Melrose Umbrella, Tiki Ti

West Side: Tasting Kitchen, Scoppa, Corner Door, Cassia

Have fun!

DH: Bathtub Gin has awesome cocktails and a combination of party atmosphere on the weekends and lounge chill vibes on the weekdays. They’re also some of the best staff around. Cafe Dante really just nails it with their cocktails. Every single thing is thought out. It’s lovely.

For a shot and a beer, I give it to my boys at Peter Mcmanus pub. Longest family owned bar in NYC and an awesome group of people. That would definitely be my “Cheers.”

Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @kswartzz.

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