The competition was fierce, but Bahamian Marv Cunningham emerged victorious as the Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge (AGCC) Champion and is now their new global brand ambassador for a two-year period, showcasing Angostura bitters and rum products to international audiences.
Cunningham eclipsed eight competitors from around the region for the title and a $10,000 check as well as a two-year contract as the brand’s new global brand ambassador.
The judging panel at last weekend’s 10th AGCC in Port of Spain, Trinidad, was led by head judge Maxwell Britten, business partner at The Django NYC and co-founder of The Liquor Cabinet.
Cunningham, a Taste of the Caribbean Hall of Fame inductee, said what is truly meaningful to him is that his win is not only inspiring to the country, but the region – to let everyone know that the dream is not too small and to never let anyone deter you.
“This was something I dreamed of six years ago while preparing for Taste of the Caribbean,” said Cunningham.
The bartender who shies away from the term mixologist in reference to himself, wowed the judges with his “Mas-Curried” rum cocktail and an Amaro cocktail titled “Amaro Bank Burst”.
In addition to winning the overall title, Cunningham also won the award for best rum cocktail.
His “Mas-Curried” rum cocktail that featured Angostura 7-year with curry shrub, a savory cauliflower mash, Angostura Orange Bitters and lime juice.
The “Amaro Bank Burst” featured Amaro Di Angosutra, Angostura 1919 Rum, tamarind pulp, lemongrass and goat pepper syrup, coconut water, Angostura Bitters and Angostura Orange Bitters.
The inspiration behind his cocktails, he said, was all in his research.
“When I researched, I looked at Angostura’s home base in Trinidad. I wanted to use something out of the box. I wanted to wow the judges, [the] world to be honest.”
He decided to take a staple Trinidad ingredient, curry, and make it a dominant flavor in his offering to satisfy the fact that they were looking for a new cocktail. He added cocktail into the mix, which he said doesn’t add flavor, but gives a beautiful texture and stabilized the drink the way a pineapple and egg white would.
“I stuck to my gut feeling and it worked. It was beautiful,” said Cunningham.
In conceptualizing the cocktails, he said he was thinking like a chef, and attributes his recent win to his lessons learnt from members of the 2015 Taste of the Caribbean National Team that captured the country’s lone title at that level to date and at which Cunningham also earned individual honor as Bartender of the Year.
“Those guys played a role,” he said. “When I created ‘Essence of the Sea’, the conch cocktail, I was thinking along those lines, and I wanted something that would outdo that. Cauliflower, it will spark a conversation, so mission accomplished [and] it won best rum drink. I was satisfied that all of my hard work paid off, taking over my wife Kenya’s kitchen,” said Cunningham.
Cunningham is a two-time winner of CHTA’s Taste of the Caribbean Best Caribbean Bartender award, having won in 2015 and 2016, before returning to judge the competition in 2017.
The new Angostura global brand ambassador is mixing it up in the world of cocktails, and has never even had any formal training in his two decades bartending. He’s entirely self-taught.
Cunningham chalks up his interest in honing his craft, to getting him to where he is today. As he sought to improve over the years, he purchased books, tools, ingredients and produce; he scoured YouTube, and says he literally spent eight hours a day working on this craft, even after working an eight-hour day.
“I just kept at it,” said Cunningham.
He says he’s always wanted to not be the stereotypical bartender making staples like rum punch, party drinks and batch cocktails. And while he says there’s nothing wrong with drinks like Bahama Mamas and Goombay Smashes, he always looks to elevate the industry.
“My first time at Taste, there was a Jamaican competitor who, when I introduced myself to everybody, looked me from head to toe and said, ‘What are you going to make? Bahama Mama?’ He didn’t say it to be insulting, he said it because that’s what Bahamians are known for; those style of cocktails – with rum and juice, instead of spirit-based or technical cocktails where you have to go and get ingredients, make shrubs and infusions. We were not at that level, so, I took the initiative to be a trendsetter in the industry by honing this craft and grabbing the bull by the horns and practicing literally non-stop. To see how I’ve grown from a bartender to a gifted bartender. And as good as I am, I have not even scratched the surface of what I am able to do,” he said.
As Angostura’s brand ambassador, Cunningham, who is funny, charismatic and outgoing, said he has been afforded the opportunity to go into different countries to take in the cultures and absorb what they do and inspire newer cocktails.
To get to the regional final, Cunningham had to make a three-minute video on what he found trending, why he would use Angostura products, and what it would mean to him to be the Angostura global brand ambassador. He also had to pen a 200-word essay and answer why he would use Angostura rums, Angostura Amaro and their bitters, as well as speak to his favorite bars, and why he liked them.
From the submissions, finalists were selected to compete in Barbados, with Cunningham emerging to compete for the top title in Trinidad.
Vanessa Ledesma, Caribbean Hotel and Tourist Association chief operations officer, said the victory helped to propel the Caribbean food and beverage industry.
“Marv is the epitome of Caribbean passion and excellence, and we are thrilled that the region emerged victorious in this global competition,” she said.
Cunningham said winning the challenge meant a lot for the Caribbean.
“It goes to show that we have the talent here, we have gifted bartenders here, not just bartenders but a gifted people in general and we belong,” he said.
He credited the Taste of the Caribbean regional competition and educational experience and the Bahamas Hotel and Tourism Association’s national competition for helping him reach this pinnacle in his career. “Being able to provide a platform for bartenders in the region to compete against each other to help develop themselves, to help further [develop] their skills, it is a great feeling and I’m very [grateful] to CHTA and Taste of the Caribbean for what they have done because they are more about teaching. Getting a medal is okay, but at the end of the day, this is what counts – that development aids in things like this.”