June 19, 2015
Marv Cunningham feels vindicated. In his first appearance at the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association’s Taste of the Caribbean competition in 2014, he thought he should have won, but he returned this year with vengeance on his mind and took home the ultimate title — Caribbean Bartender of the Year, earning himself a Hall of Fame (HOF) berth. He took home a gold medal for his Pink Pearl Manhattan, which was voted best rum drink.
“I feel vindicated. Redemption is sweet,” said Cunningham, 33, a bartender at Aura Night Club at the Atlantis. “The pain from last year was what really motivated me to go in with that killer instinct this year.”
He was not ashamed to admit that he cried when his name was called, but he said they were definitely tears of joy.
“Winning was definitely an honor, to be the first Bahamian to get gold in the bartending competition and winning it, that was definitely a memorable moment for me to actually be a part of it. You don’t get it any better than that — knowing your hard work pays off.”
His historic win came at the same time that The Bahamas made history winning its first Taste of the Caribbean title in the 16-year history of the competition, taking home the Caribbean National Team of the Year honors.
At this year’s competition, Cunningham presented “The Pink Pearl Manhattan” which won best rum drink; Essence of the Sea his vodka cocktail; and a Caribbean float (coconut, ginger soda with sour sop ice cream, topped with a lemon meringue whipped cream). The theme for the rum competition this year was a twist on a classic cocktail. Cunningham chose to deconstruct then reconstruct the classic Manhattan cocktail which he said was not too sweet or strong, but very flavorful. He put his drink over the top with pink coconut water and grenadine ice balls. The drink got its name from his ice ball.
His “Essence of the Sea” vodka cocktail sounds weird as he deconstructed the conch salad into the drink, but he said it works. It’s a drink that he took months to perfect.
“It sounds very weird, but that I came up with the idea because my family and I love conch salad, and the favorite part of the conch salad is the juice, so I said why not try to make a conch salad out of this. It took months of refining until I got it right. It’s conch salad in a glass and this would be a cocktail that would be a hit at any martini bar, or restaurant that serves seafood, because it pairs perfectly with an entrée. It’s an aphrodisiac, an aperitif (drinks typically alcoholic that are normally served before a meal) so this is a very unique cocktail that’s very well put together,” he said.
His non-alcoholic drink which he named a “Caribbean Float” is comprised of coconut, ginger soda with sour sop ice cream, and topped with a lemon meringue whipped cream). It’s a drink with a lot of flavors that he says actually go together.
“I’m very pleased with what I did,” said Cunningham. “It’s not like I woke up two months before competition and just decided to throw up a few recipes. I’ve been working on these recipes ever since I get my backside cut last year.”
Of his three drinks he said the Essence of the Sea was his favorite because it he says it has Bahamian written all over it.
He credits his family for allowing him to sacrifice family time for him to train for the competition, he also said he owed his accomplishment to his Heavenly Father.
“I could not have sat down and come up with these things without inspiration from him, because there were many days as I was sitting down at the drawing board saying I needed to come up with something, and some things would just give me a slap in the head and be like okay ‘wap’ — and it couldn’t have been me,” he said. “And a lot of people don’t know the sacrifices I made. I sacrificed a lot — time away from my family by going to practice every Tuesday and Thursday, and there were many days I would be at home and just be in my lab going all day and all night because I needed to get it right.
Yes, he has a lab at home — think mad scientist — but just know that Marv is sane, he just knows that in today’s world bartenders need more in their arsenal than just shakers.
In his lab you will find hardcore equipment like a centrifuge machine (which can separate sharp tasting pulps from a juice providing a layer of sweet good tasting juice not easily achieved by other methods); a rotary evaporator (rotovap, which is an instrument used to distill a solvent), a dehydrator, iSi whippers and foamers which are a new part of the food service industry at all levels, blenders, and equipment like the vacuum machine.
“In order to perform on an international stage you need the specialized equipment. When you see what the bartenders are using when you go to London and Japan, and you go there with a shaker — they look at you and laugh,” he said.
While some people get hung up on titles and refer to themselves as mixologists, and consider bartender a dirty word, Marv actually says he’s both.
“I am a mixologist because of the techniques and the machines and flavors that I use, but at the end of the day I’m still a passionate bartender who just loves what he does,” he said. “So I am a mixologist and a passionate bartender, but in order to become a mixologist you definitely have to be a passionate bartender, because you have bartenders out there who really don’t care.”
He says being a bartender is a big responsibility as people put their trust in him to make something for them to put into their body. And he says he always aims to please.
“I take it seriously and try to make the most consistent cocktails every time,” he says.
Cunningham got into the field at the young age of 16, when he was hired on as a bar-back (a bartender’s assistant) at a now closed former nightclub. He was working at an offshore bank when he decided to go to college. His mother, Vernice Newbold, fell ill, and not wanting to leave the island strapped for cash, he opted out of post secondary education, and instead sought a second job at the nightclub. He said because of his work ethic, and the training he received, he was promoted to bartender within three months.
The first drink he made for a customer was a daiquiri.
“I was itching to make a cocktail, but they just wanted me to make them a simple daiquiri. I made it, they loved it, and that is what made me realize that sitting behind a desk wasn’t for me, and that it’s all about that interaction. I almost want to say I felt like a doctor, because before they had that drink they had looked so sulky, like just give me something to drink and they perked up right up after that,” he said.
It’s been more than a decade-and-a-half since he made that first drink and he can now add Caribbean Bartender of the Year to his resume. In November 2014 he also started a bar consulting company, Mr. Mix Bahamas through which he consults with bar owners, who are looking to please their clientele. He trains bartenders and teaches them consistency and checks their bars.
Cunningham has also won a number of other competitions and is the current Atlantis Mix It Up champion, and was named Atlantis Bartender of the Year. He is also the reigning Stoli Mix Masters Challenge winner, and is currently defending his title. He won the preliminaries on Thursday and will compete in the final next week.
Cunningham guards his Essence of the Sea and Caribbean Float cocktail recipes like a mother guarding her cub, but he parted with his award-winning Pink Pearl Manhattan recipe that you can try at home.
The Bahamas National Culinary Team won three of the five top categories. In the win, Team Bahamas saw Sweeting picking up a fourth HOF honor and a three-peat.
Joining Cunningham in the individual winners circle was four-time winner Sheldon Tracey Sweeting who took home the Caribbean Pastry Chef of the Year award.
The eight-member squad won three gold medals, two silvers and one bronze medal. Junior chef Crystal Morley rounded out the three gold medals with Cunningham and Sweeting. Silver medals went to Richmond Fowler II (chef of the year) and Sweeting (cheesecake competition). Charon Mckenzie took bronze in the beef/seafood competition. The competition was held June 12-14 at the Hyatt Regency in Miami, Florida.
Sally Gaskins is the only other Bahamian to secure a HOF berth at the competition. She won pastry chef of the year in 2004.
Marv Cunningham’s award-winning Pink Pearl Manhattan
3 ounces orange-infused rum (you can use John Watlings Pale Rum)
3 ounces pineapple infused dry vermouth
For ice cubes
1 cup coconut water
½ tablespoon grenadine for pink pearl ice cubes
Thermometer to check temperature
To infuse pale rum: Cut up a washed orange with peel and place into a Mason jar. Top with pale rum of your choice, or John Watlings Pale Rum. Seal and allow mixture to sit on countertop for approximately two weeks.
To infuse dry vermouth: Peel and slice or dice a pineapple. Place cut fruit into a mason jar. Fill jar with dry vermouth, seal and place on the countertop for three weeks to infuse vermouth with pineapple.
To make pink pearl ice cubes: Mix one cup of coconut water and ½ tablespoon of grenadine, pour into ice trays and place into the freezer until frozen.
To serve: Place 3 ounces of orange-infused rum, 3 ounces of pineapple-infused dry vermouth into a mixing glass, not a shaker, because this drink is meant to be stirred, not shaken. Take a bar spoon or steel straw and stir in ice until temperature reaches 30 and 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Marv Cunningham says the drink is absolutely fabulous when cold. Place coconut water ice cubes into glasses, pour drink over coconut ice cubes, straining to exclude ice cubes and serve. Cunningham says as the coconut ice cubes melt, they infuse the drink with even more flavor.
Click here to read more at The Nassau Guardian