As the date draws nearer for the Diageo Global finals in the UK (July 28 to August 1), World Class activity has been high around Latin America and the Caribbean as most countries involved in World Class have begun winding up their local competitions to decide which bartenders will represent the region. One man who has been present at most of the waves around the region is Paulo Figueiredo, regional brand ambassador for Diageo Reserve. We spoke to the energetic mixologist and bar management specialist about his observations this year and what improvements he has seen.

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Paulo Figueiredo taking a sniff of a cocktail during the final wave of World Class Trinidad and Tobago in 2013. PHOTO: GuzzleCaribbean

GuzzleCaribbean: You travel around Latin America and the Caribbean overseeing and judging the World Class waves, how has the level of competition been this year?

Paulo Figueiredo: Every year we have seen improvement, some countries more than the others. Overall the level is better now without a doubt. Bartenders are getting more creative every day, not just creative but more technical, taking their day-to-day job more seriously. There are so many opportunities out there these days! In some countries some bartenders are as influential as Chefs. World Class, as a platform, is not just for bartenders; we focus on bar owners and customers. This triangle goes hand in hand. We can’t change the cocktail culture or take to the next level without engagement from the three parts.

GC: In 2012, Latin America and The Caribbean placed in the top 16, last year we placed in the top five. From what you’ve seen, do you think we have a chance of either winning this year?

PF: Yes absolutely, that is all down to how bad do you want to win!

GC: Compared to Europe and Asia, what is the skill level of bartenders in Latin America and the Caribbean on a scale of 1 to 10?

PF: Ten without question! When you stand there we all have a shot! Nothing is impossible; it’s all down to how much effort you put in. This might sound extreme, but it all depends on how much effort you put in. We are as good as Asia, USA, Europe or Australia. The difference is that we are not so disciplined. That is not a bad thing; I guess we enjoy life more on this side of the world. Now if you want to win you will have to spend eight hours a day maybe even more, working on your techniques, thinking outside the box, planning, experimenting. Look at master Sommeliers, they give up their lives for one year and most fail and come back again, it’s all about dedication and passion. I will give you one example, Tim Philips (Global World Class winner 2012). He competed the first year and didn’t win, however, the second year he was ready. The main reason is that he spent one year preparing himself. He visualized the victory and it worked.

GC: Are you seeing improvements and in what areas?

PF: Techniques for sure, they are all improving on that, also creativity although I have seem a lot of “YouTube” bartenders. We need to find our own style on this side of the world, it will come I know that is just a matter of time.

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Paulo with Stephon Scott of T&T, the Latin American and Caribbean regional winner of World Class 2012. PHOTO: GuzzleCaribbean

GC: In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Cayman Islands seem to be the leaders when it comes to World Class. Is the competition held in any other islands? If not, why? Are there plans to expand to any other islands?

PF: Yes, we have World Class in many countries in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Just as an example, the best Latin American bartender in World Class was from Puerto Rico last year. We prefer to really do a great job in each of the countries we currently are and then expand to others. Quality and impact are the main concerns not scale. Puerto Rico has been very strong and watch for Peru this year they are very good is well.

GC: We heard that this year entry to the finals may not be automatic and that regional finalists will be determined at a final competition in Panama. Is that so and if so, why the change?

PF: We want to be sure that the competitors from Latin America that are going to London for the final are at such a high level that they really have a good opportunity to pass to the second round. In World Class, bartenders can participate many times. Some past world champions have participated two to three times before winning. Panama will first and foremost be a week to bring the level of the bartenders as high as possible with some of the best worldwide mentors available.

GC: Cocktail culture is not as developed in the Caribbean as it is in Europe. What would it take to really create more interest in cocktails from drinkers and bar/club owners?

PF: It will take time. London eight years ago or New York 10 years ago was not so developed, I mean there were some elite bars, I would call them the one percent, but now you have so many options. The secret is for two or three bars to really take this seriously and see the global vision, the rest will just fall in place with time. Diageo has so many platforms in place: World Class, Bar Academy and Learning for Life, all with the objective to develop the skills of bartenders and the local cocktail scene and fine drinking.

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Mario Seijo, the Latin American and Caribbean regional World Class winner 2013.

GC: The Caribbean and Latin America has contributed massively to the history of cocktails, in what way can we continue to impact the industry?

PF: Now is easier than ever, you have social media, YouTube and other ways, it is totally up to determination, passion and vision. A few years ago, Stanislav Vadrna went to Martinique and saw swizzle sticks. They have been there for years making Rum Swizzles. The thing is they never paid attention. He bought a few and made a YouTube video and guess what? Swizzles became popular again. We live in the digital era, most bartenders just have to be creative and expose their ideas.

GC: How has World Class impacted on bartenders in this part of the world?

PF: The impact is huge. I have been in the region for three years now and they have all come a long way, I mean in every single country, some more than others, but I believe it is safe to say we are on the right path.

GC: What’s the best cocktail you’ve ever had in the Caribbean and Latin America and what was in it?

PF: This is a difficult one…I mean I taste thousands of cocktails a year (taste not drinking them all), but I would say A New Friend made with Ron Zacapa, Gold Reserve, raisin brown sugar, a dash of Angostura bitters, tobacco smoke.

GC: Finish the sentence: When I am relaxing my drink of choice is…

PF: A Ketel One Martini with a lemon twist.