Words by: Simon Difford
Alejandro Millán Ponce de Leon from Puebla, Mexico was crowned 2016 Chivas Master at the first major global bartending competition final to be held in Shanghai. To win the title he overcame fierce competition from 14 of the world’s most innovative bartenders over the five-day event.
Like so many bartenders, Alejandro started his bartending career as a way of earning money whilst attending college. It was not a particularly auspicious start at a nightclub in Puebla, Mexico. Some 18 months later he moved to Playa Del Carmen where he worked at Senor Frogs, a high volume bar. Like so many others, he looked to his country’s capital city to progress his career and landed himself a job at one of Mexico City’s most famous bars, Limantour.
Alejandro says that it was not until he started work at Limantour that “I opened my mind for craft cocktails”. Up to then it is perhaps fair to say that he was keener on perfecting his flair bartending skills. Does he still flair? “It’s something I do when I’m stressed but not at the bar – just at home and with friends.” Despite saying this, Alejandro is a stylish bartender who incorporates working flair into his drink making, saying “I do those things for fun.”
Now back in his hometown of Puebla, Alejandro bartends at Bootlegger bar and also teaches bartending at the Instituto Culinario de Mexico. “I love teaching, that’s the thing I really enjoy because I think you have the opportunity to make… to inspire the people and you can teach how to do right things and transmit the passion. Being behind the bar is fun and I love to experiment and create an experience for our guests. I just work at the bar weekends, and Monday to Friday I work at the school. We don’t have a lot of bars in Peubla, but it’s a really good city and we are trying to do good things.”
Chivas Masters was Alejandro’s second global final. “I really love and enjoy cocktail competitions. We had different challenges and of course I was nervous the whole time – after all we had four of the best judges over the world: Chris Lowder, Naren Young, Dre Masso, and Leo Robitscheck. We were under a lot of pressure, but you can take it as a bartender – you know what you are doing right or wrong. I met a lot of bartenders from around the world and each has different skills which you can watch and learn from. That’s what I love about the Chivas Masters Cocktail competition.
Alejandro won the Chivas Masters with his signature cocktail, El Jornalero. “In Mexico when we make cocktails, we use a lot of fruits, juices and I was trying to make a cocktail that I hope will become a classic cocktail – although I know it’s not so easy to prepare the ingredients as you have to make the syrup with cacao and dried chillies.
I was trying to use the most significant ingredients from Mexico and one of these is dried chillies. We use a lot of them in our food and I prefer the flavour of the dried chillies to the green ones. I decided to use citrus from Veracruz, mezcal – the spirit of Mexico, cacao from Tabasco and coffee beans from Chiapas. I was trying to combine these Mexican ingredients with the notes and flavour of Chivas Regal. I was inspired by Mexican artisan craftsman so I present my drink in a black mud jar made in Oaxaca. I think my cocktail is true to me and my country. It’s is a tribute to the Jornaleros, the people who work in the field, they are responsible for making the collection of all the ingredients that I use in this cocktail.”
Glass: Oaxaca jar
Garnish: 2 sprays mezcal infused with coffee beans and orange zest twist
Method: Throw all ingredients with ice and strain into Oaxaca jar
• 50ml Chivas Regal 12 Year Old
• 20ml Amaro Averna liqueur
• 10ml Dry vermouth
• 15ml Homemade cacao and dry chilli syrup*
• *To make the chilli chocolate syrup: simmer 1 kilo sugar, 1 litre water, 300 grams toasted cacao beans, 2 wahili chillies, 2 ancho chillies, 2 paseo chillies and 1 chipotle chilli.
Testing the competitors’ ability to work as a team is an important aspect of the Chivas Maters and Alejandro led a group of fellow finalists to be awarded the title ‘Chivas Masters Collective’ for their pop-up bar, The Beach Brothers @ Logan’s Punch. The team, comprising of Santiago Ortiz Jacome from Spain, Ben Rojo from the United States, Stanisław Domin from Poland, and Tomáš Melzer from Czech Republic, as well as Alejandro won a trip to the Tales of the Cocktail 2016 festival.
“The idea for the Tiki bar was mine - I love Tiki and I thought the Tiki theme could be funny for us and funnier for the guests.” The team’s winning drink was a punch called the Cinco Hermanos which included an ingredient from each of the team members’ country. “Another important ingredient was pineapple to represent hospitality. I wanted to make a punch to share, representing the ethos of the Chivas Masters brotherhood.”
“We made more than 40 litres of punch. It wasn’t actually a punchbowl. We went to the flower market and bought a huge glazed plant pot. It was pretty expensive but we saved budget on glassware by using plastic cups and plastic bags adding to the fun of our bar.”
“Thanks to my bar team, family and my girl. And many thanks to all the people that supported me in Mexico. When I was in China, lots of people in Mexico texted me to say good luck. I was surprised to make it through to the last three and when I saw all the texts I felt the pressure, but I was comfortable with that as I had so much support. I thought, I can do it.
“In Mexico we have great bars and a great culture. Over the past two years a lot of cocktail bars have opened in Mexico City and bartending is fast developing as a profession. I have a big responsibility and I have an opportunity to put Mexico’s cocktail industry on the map – I will try.”
Bartender & teacher