The Diamond’s Giancarlo Quiroz Jesus is the Canadian finalist for the Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition with his fantastic El Ritmo cocktail. This Tuesday, he’s embarked on a trip that will take him to Montreal, Miami, Puerto Rico and ultimately San Francisco, where he will compete against bartenders from all over the world for the grand finale of Bacardi Legacy. Gian managed to take a few minutes to chat with us just before he left Vancouver to share with us some stories of New Zealand, insights about competing, and what he’s learned throughout his career.
JC: How did you get into bartending?
G: I started off in the industry as a kitchen hand, washing plates and being yelled at by grumpy chefs for about a year and a half, then I started working in a restaurant as a food runner and busser. From there… To be honest, it was flair bartending that caught my eye! I was working for a big company, attached to a hotel, and casino. Within the whole complex there was a flair bar, and the bartenders that worked there were so skilled! I was a barback for a little bit, and I got to learn from them. It was hilarious, that’s all I wanted to do! Years later I got into cocktails in a different kind of way, but watching flair put me in the direction I am now.
JC: How long did you pursue flair bartending before you get into craft cocktails?
G: I never did full-on flair bartending while I worked in a flair bar, because I wasn’t of age. I was 16-17, running around bussing tables — the legal drinking age in New Zealand is 18. I’ve been in the industry since I was 15.
JC: Who do you think has had the most lasting influence on you as a bartender?
G: I’ve actually got a lot of people to thank for that. I never really stuck with one person as my mentor; I was very fortunate to meet a lot of amazing bartenders and chefs in New Zealand, and a lot have gone to either represent New Zealand or some other countries in their profession, or just work in highly regarded bars around the world. All of them have had some impact on my career, whether it’s just with simple things like how to work behind the bar or posture, or even how to make drinks and how to balance them, each one of them showed me the way.
JC: What do you think is the most important life lesson you’ve learned so far, either from being a bartender or observing people in a bar?
G: I think it’s respect. I started off when I was pretty young. I dropped out of high school and hospitality never was my first idea of what I was gonna do, and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do as a career, but it was the respect that I got from the chefs that gave me the time of the day and that really made me appreciate the industry. I worked my ass off. At first, I didn’t think of it too much, but they really treated me horribly. The moment I started to do my job really well and head up to work on time, they showed me a lot of respect, and I think that was the biggest thing growing up in the industry. Meeting young bartenders or veteran bartenders, they all got very high level of respect for whoever you are, and I think that an important thing to have in this industry, whether it’s with you colleagues or whether it’s with guests. There were days where you’re being pushed to the point of wanting to quit, but it’s that respect that makes you show up the next day.
When I was 16 I was the youngest waiter at Orbit, regarded as the busiest fine-dining restaurant in New Zealand. The reason Orbit was crazy busy was because it’s a revolving restaurant located inside Auckland’s Sky Tower, the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere, and the restaurant is about 50 metres from the top of the tower. Now it’s become a tourist-sort of place, still with great food and everything, but back in the day when I was working there some of the best chefs in the country were also working for that company, and the food was amazing. I was very fortunate to meet all of them and learn off them. I worked as a senior waiter, as a barista, eventually as a bartender and I trained a lot of people. It was that respect I got from the managers and the chefs that made me want to stay in the industry.
JC: At this moment, you’re working in one of the premier venues in Auckland. What makes you leave to go to Vancouver?
G: So I left after I had turned 18 and I went back to Peru. Once I got back from visiting home, I started actually working in nightclubs, pubs and dive bars. By the time I was 19, I was one of the managers at a pub called Cardrona Speight’s Ale House. That was pretty awesome, I learned a lot about beer and hospitality, because it was the sort of place where you just had your 50 year-old regular guys that would come in. I remember until this day, I had this one regular, his name was Paulie. He came in every single day at 5 o’clock, he would have 3 of one particular beer and we’d talk about sports. He’d come back the next day and repeat the same routine.
After a while I moved down to Wellington. That was 5 years ago. I really started to take cocktails very seriously, working in some pretty amazing cocktail bars. The bar that I was at before I moved to Vancouver was the Hawthorn Lounge. The bar is actually turning 10 years old this year. I was there for about 3 years, I absolutely loved the job and would’ve worked every single day. It was a 1920’s speakeasy bar that half the city had never heard of, very exciting, cocktail-focused, very much of a dealer’s-choice kind of place. I just got to a point where I realized I never really traveled before. I had a chat with the owner, and he told me he regretted he never got to go travel. He said to me: “Look, when you decide to come back to New Zealand, you can have your job back”. For me it was a great satisfaction to find out I was doing such a good job he would happily take me back, so I got my visa, booked my ticket and I came to Vancouver with a backpack.
It wasn’t until I was on the plane that I realized I hadn’t made any phone calls, I hadn’t made any connections and I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I started contemplating going to work in a brewery, or a coffee shop. I was more like getting out to a different country, starting from the bottom and trying to learn that experience. I was very fortunate; my first 2 weeks were pretty boozy, but I managed to meet the nicest people ever and they helped me out. My first connections were Dani Tatarin and Gez McAlpine. Gez was the person that put me in contact with Josh Pape. I like to think I managed to convince Josh to let me behind the bar!
JC: At what point did you decide you would get into doing cocktail competitions?
G: I’ve done it for a while. It’s always really tough, and I try not to let it get the best of me. There were definitely some competitions where I do really well then luck out at the end, and it always really upset me, so that’s why I’d do them, but I wouldn’t do them. Still, for the last 5 years, I’ve thrown my head into the ring of bartenders. Over the years it’s been pretty tough, because there’s been some really talented bartenders in New Zealand. The younger guys are also hungry to create new trends, which is awesome.
JC: If you do really well in San Francisco, how do you hope to use that as a springboard?
G: Ultimately, I really want to open up my own bar, but I’m not ready yet. Even though I’ve done this for years now, and I’ve been really fortunate to work for restaurants, bars and event companies, I don’t think I’ve learned everything I know can help me open up a bar. This could be a way to travel a bit more around the world to see what other people are doing in different parts, and use those ideas. But for now, I’m not gonna leave Vancouver anytime soon. I love this city.
JC: If you could have a drink with anyone in the world, who would it be, and what would the drink be?
G: That’s a tough one!
“I’d probably have a Gin and Tonic with Peter Lowry.”
We worked at the Hawthorn Lounge together, and he still works there. He’s a massive influence at how I look at cocktails. He’s this Irish bartender that did a little bit of traveling himself. He just had different ways about thinking how to make cocktails, and his style was immaculate. Just the way he would talk to guests, the way he would come out with cocktails was amazing. We spent some much time together, even outside of the bar. We spent more time together than with our respective partners! We got along really well. I miss him a lot, he’s had a great influence on me. His favourite spirit is gin, and so is mine, and we’d always get a Gin and Tonic or a beer. If I could, I’d probably have a drink with him.
El Ritmo Cocktail
50 ml Bacardi Superior Rum
10 ml Cynar
30 ml pineapple juice
15 ml lime juice
15 ml coconut cream (depending on cream, simple syrup to taste)
Combine all in shaker then shake and strain over crushed ice in a highball glass.
Garnish with mint sprig.