This story is published in partnership with Diageo Reserve World Class, which, since launching in 2009, has supported hundreds of thousands of bartenders through its training and advocacy program. For this World Cocktail Day, on May 13th, World Class surveyed top bartenders around the globe—including World Class Bartender of the Year, Kaitlyn Stewart—on the most popular cocktails being ordered in their bars today; to see the results, click here.
With World Cocktail Day approaching, World Class surveyed a number of top bartenders who have their fingers on the pulse of current cocktail culture on the most commonly ordered drinks of the moment. It’s little surprise that the Old-Fashioned came out on top, with the Negroni next in line. “The Old Fashioned and Negroni are classic cocktails that have stood the test of time,” says Vancouver’s Kaitlyn Stewart. “There are countless variations, but when executed perfectly in any bar around the world, they always taste exactly how you want them to.”
Like many bartenders, Stewart’s own early efforts at playing around with cocktails and trying to find her style saw her taking classic recipes and tweaking the formula. She started by merely replacing the sugar component with alternative sweeteners, like honeys and jams. “They seem simple now,” she notes, “But to me back then, they seemed like the most interesting cocktails possible.”
Stewart began her life behind the stick accidentally. Her family had been in hospitality her entire life, but she was just looking for a gig to pay her way through college in Vancouver. “That old song ‘n’ dance,” she says.
That job was at a well-known chain of Canadian restaurants, which mostly meant pulling pints and spray-gunning soda water into well vodka. In fact, though she’s been a bartender for eleven years, she only started seeing it as an art form in the last five.
Her professional life changed when she unwittingly took a mentor in Justin Taylor, a mainstay on the Vancouver bartending scene. “He showed me the other side of bartending, and that you could make a career out of it,” she explains. “How you can put a lot more creativity and thought into what you’re making for people.”
Taylor also encouraged her to start joining the competition scene, even signing her up for her first event. A few years in, she went on to win Diageo Reserve’s World Class Bartender of the Year competition in Mexico City last August. Since winning, the newly crowned champion has been traveling the world as an ambassador for the competition and promoting the collection of Diageo Reserve Brands, including Johnnie Walker, Ketel One and Zacapa.
Now at Royal Dinette—what she jokes is a “farm to downtown” restaurant—Stewart strives to update the cocktail list regularly to play with the seasonal flavors and ingredients represented by the food menu, which changes nearly weekly. But Stewart continues to let the past—and those timeless classic cocktails—inspire her present. “I personally like to drink simple, so when I’m creating cocktails, I want them to be ones where people can instantly recognize the flavors, but see that there is a unique spin to it.”
“At the Signature Serve challenge [during the 2017 World Class final], I was told to create a cocktail that could withstand the test of time and be recreated at different bars around world. I did a spin on a classic I really love, the Cobbler, which is a fairly easy cocktail: spirit, sugar, and fruit. Using Bulleit Bourbon as my base, I made a milk liqueur for my sugar element, then I made a cherry shrub using local cherries, as well as a bit of local amaretto, lemon and bitters. It works because if cherries aren’t in season in, say, Thailand, they could just swap in a different fruit with the same base.”
“I try to practice making sustainable drinks on a daily basis. We work closely with the kitchen, so if I’m taking mint and only need the leaves, I can give them back the stems and they can use it in a stock. If they’re juicing something and have leftover pulp, I can use that in syrups. I put Tanqueray No. Ten alongside a pineapple kasu—the lees of sake—a pineapple gomme I made from the pulp, bitters I made from the skins of the pineapple and rejuiced lime husks. It’s really fun to make something that gets people aware of reducing your carbon footprint.”
“For the Heat of the Moment challenge, I wanted to create a drink that really showed off the Johnnie Walker [Black Label] in a unique spin off of a Pimm’s Cup. We were challenged with using different culinary techniques and secret ingredients to come up with a drink à la minute. Instead of using traditional Pimm’s, I was able to do a rapid infusion, using an iSi canister, to mimic the flavors that Pimm’s highlights. I caramelized lemons to make a charred lemonade and torched some rosemary for depth and aroma. I named the cocktail ‘Boy Named Sue’ because being in the kitchen always reminds me of my grandma: She was the first person to teach me how to crack an egg and roll out pie crust. She also loved to listen to Johnny Cash, so it just fit perfectly with the Johnnie Walker whiskey.”