On a walkway overlooking the palm-studded indoor courtyard at the heart of San Juan's Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art, Gabriela Holzer is getting ready to mix a drink. On this balmy late-January evening, the 26-year-old bartender looks appropriately tropical in a green dress and yellow headband, a pop of bright color in her dark hair. Holzer focuses intently on the tray in front of her — a portable mise en place loaded with shakers, glasses, ice, and a line of little carafes — prepping perfect petite mint leaves just so.
It's nothing she hasn't done countless evenings at Porco Lounge & Tiki Room in Cleveland, where she works behind the bar. And yet, this night's different: she's mixing and serving her own creation for judges who will decide if it has the potential to join the storied ranks of the classic rum cocktails, the ones everyone knows. Think: daiquiri, mojito, Old Cuban. That's the company Holzer's own creation, A Mi Manera ("My Way"), aspires to keep.
Holzer is one of eight U.S. finalists competing to be one of two national winners of the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation Legacy Cocktail Competition, presented by Bacardí, to advance to the Bacardí Legacy Global Cocktail Competition in Miami this May, where 41 contestants from 40 countries will vie for the international title. (I attended Legacy as a guest of Bacardí.) Competitions like this are one established pipeline through which new drinks spread to bar menus around the country and the world, and a stage where tomorrow's cocktail stars get discovered.
Holzer is first. She'll get two minutes to set up and then the music cuts and her mic comes on, giving her six minutes to tell her drink's story — and make no mistake, the story isn't everything but it is key — to the panel of judges and a room full of spectators, while she shakes, strains, and pours.
"Leaving your legacy as a woman is especially important," Holzer begins from the stage. "Unfortunately, we're so far less represented and recognized. So for my Bacardí Legacy campaign, I chose to amplify the legacies of the women in my community by listening to the incredible stories that they have to share."
As she measures and pours, she tells her story: how each ingredient in her drink represents a lesson she was taught by another woman, lessons she hopes to pay forward in the future.
"My friend Liz told me about a time that she was struggling to find her place in the service industry. And then she said to me, I hope one day to be a mentor so as not to subject women to what I had to go through to get to where I am. Aquafaba is the ingredient that helps bring rise to all the great flavors in A Mi Manera," Holzer narrates, pouring the chickpea foam, a vegan substitute for egg white, into the shaker. "So its flavor goes undetected, but its presence becomes very apparent in the final product."
With each ingredient, she adds to her story. "Sherry brings strength and wisdom to the recipe. It represents the spirit of our feminine ancestors, who paved the way for us today."
Then it's time to shake. The crowd goes wild, whooping and clapping as a flash of silver slices the air.
* * *
One place where women aren't underrepresented is the U.S. Legacy finalist stage. Two winners would emerge from the evening's competition, representing the eastern and western U.S. divisions. Holzer competes against three New York-based bartenders, two men and a woman. The western finalists, dominated by Los Angeles and San Francisco, are three women and one man. In fact, all of the women who competed that week in the semi-finalist round advanced. (This came as a surprise to my Uber driver earlier that day — old assumptions about who an elite bartender would be die hard, apparently.)
But Holzer is the lone Midwesterner and non-coastal bartender to make it this far in San Juan. She's also fairly new to cocktails, having come over from Cleveland's robust beer scene a little over a year ago. Maybe in the eyes of some, that makes her an underdog going up against three dudes from New York bars. But Holzer doesn't seem fazed about making the national finals for this major competition in only her second contest ever.
"I think it's pretty special that I get to represent Cleveland," Holzer, 26, told me that morning, before she and her fellow competitors headed to the beach for a yoga class. The vibe among the bartenders is more we're a family than I'm not here to make friends, by the way, a philosophy that Bacardí heavily encourages through four days of group activities planned around the competitions. "I don't think people think about Cleveland as a place for food and drink as much as they should. We've got some fantastic cocktail bars."
At Porco, Holzer explains, she has "kind of [a] laboratory" with the freedom to experiment beyond the tiki menu. Designing a cocktail for a competition like Legacy is a balancing act: part science and part artistry, working within very specific constraints. The list of rules is long. There are 17 alone just for the ingredients, which can't number more than six, including the base which must be chosen from a short list of Bacardí (obviously) rums. No homemade bitters or tinctures. No tobacco or CBD infusions. No more than three alcoholic ingredients. It cannot involve setting anything — repeat: anything — on fire.
The goal here is to create an elevated drink that could potentially find a home on any cocktail bar menu: a classic in the making rather than a trendy beast, an attention-seeking stunt, or an oddball with niche appeal.
"A true legacy cocktail can travel the world, be easily replicated and is likable to the masses," clarifies Bacardí Rums North America Vice President Lisa Pfenning.
For A Mi Manera, Holzer mixes Bacardí Ocho, an 8-year aged rum that's become a mainstay for craft cocktails, with Oloroso sherry, a homemade strawberry syrup, lemon juice and the aforementioned aquafaba, and mint leaf garnish.
It didn't take Holzer long to nail it — about two sessions. For an artist like her (literally: Holzer has a fine art degree), working within strict parameters isn't necessarily inhibiting.
"Good things come from restrictions sometimes because it forces you down a path and forces you to think creatively," she said. "It really pushes you to think beyond what you would have done if you could do anything at all."
The hope is that these drinks will have an afterlife long past the competition, on the menus of the bars where competitors work and beyond. Winning the Bacardí Legacy Global Cocktail Competition is a pretty nice boost for a bartender's career — they spend the next year traveling the world, educating their industry peers, recruiting the next round of competitors, and showcasing their drink and its story. That's how new classics are established, after all — one menu adoption at a time.
"Legacy's goal is to bring forth contemporary classics in cocktails, but it also creates contemporary legends in bartenders," said Caroline Rosen, president of the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation, Bacardí's partner in the competition.
Pfenning points to Darnell Holguin, 2017 East Coast U.S. Legacy winner and now beverage director at Las' Lap in New York, which is co-owned by "Black Panther" star (and rum aficionado) Michael B. Jordan, whose winning cocktail "It Was All a Dream" is a fixture on the Las' Lap menu. Legacy alumni also go on to open their own bars, mentor future competitors, and even serve as competition judges.
"Our 2016 winner, USA's Gn Chan, had the chance to explore cocktail culture in more than twenty cities worldwide and work with some of the best and most passionate bartenders across the globe," Pfenning added. "He then went on to create the wildly successful 'cocktailmobile' concept of Double Chicken Please, a roving pop-up bar/restaurant that's based out of a vintage VW van and travels across the country."
So there's more at stake here than bragging rights, especially for a relative newcomer.
* * *
Here's the thing about the story part of the cocktail competition: It's easy to dismiss it as marketing bullshit, hype crafted to help sell a drink. But being able to tell a good story is a time-honored bartending skill. Even in the diviest of dives, it's what separates the wannabes from the pros. And if competitions like Legacy are about elevating bartenders, not just their drinks, to star status, the story is where the bartender's personality — and their values — really shine.
Across the industry, Rosen says "bartenders are now, more than ever, tapping into their creativity and the full life cycle of the cocktail from creation to consumer. It's more than just flair, it's being meaningful about sourcing all aspects of the cocktail."
On the finals stage, bartenders told stories about their childhoods, their families, their long summer nights in the city, the life-changing power of love and international travel. When done right, the story of a drink meshes with the story of a person, too. And even when serving the most complicated cocktails, it's never just about the drink — if you can make a patron feel like they're in their own personal "Cheers," they're more likely to be loyal, to follow the bartender wherever she goes.
A conversation with Holzer quickly reveals that she's not here to sling rum-spiked girl-power platitudes. There's a drive for equality and justice behind her drink's story.
If, like that Uber driver, you're surprised to learn that women bartenders are innovating, competing, and showing up and off at this level, maybe that's because of the (utterly tired and outdated) image of the Fancy Man Mixologist of the early 21st Century, Heroic Figure of the Craft Cocktail Revolution — gartered sleeves folded across his chest, mustache tips waxed to a point — that still hasn't completely faded from the public imagination.
"I think part of it might be the women are busy actually working, doing their job, so they don't have time to sit there and hold their arms crossed and be the face of something," Holzer said with a laugh. "We see it in every profession, once you get to a certain level. For some reason, you see the women not as equally represented as men. But that's not a talent thing."
She's also quick to point out that in her community, at least, that image isn't crowding out the field.
"What I see in the women and the men around me is an active desire to change that," she said. "Cleveland is pretty progressive in that way."
Part of competitors' campaigns for their cocktail involves also raising money for a cause, which then becomes part of the drink's story. Holzer's putting the A Mi Manera money where her mouth is and funding affordable health care for women in the service industry, where many workers in still go without, despite the demands of their jobs. Part of those unique health needs, Holzer emphasizes, are reproductive — not having to pay thousands of dollars to get an IUD inserted or removed, for example, can make all the difference for workers who live on tips.
"You are constantly using your body to create cocktails, walk on the floor. It's stress on your joints and your muscles. And on your brain, you know, constantly talking to people, mental health is also part of it because if you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of your guests," she added.
* * *
Holzer put up a strong presentation, but in the end was bested for the Eastern U.S. title by the elegant stylings of Tsunetaka Imada (of the East Village speakeasy Angel's Share), whose cherry blossom-inspired Sabor à Mi brings Japanese plum wine together with Bacardí's four-year aged rum. Taylor Cloyes, of LA's Here and Now (one of Esquire's Best Bars in America for 2019) took the West Coast title with her tart apple and Ocho, feminine power-inspired Maestra. They'll both go on to compete for the global title in Miami later this spring.
But winning, as they say, isn't everything. For a relative newcomer like Holzer, even before she stepped onto the finals stage, just being there in San Juan introduced her to prominent members of her industry and a wider audience, networking and visibility that can pay off in future opportunities. She cited the challenges they were judged on that week as a valuable opportunity to learn and grow. But it also gave her an opening to lead, too.
"It gives me agency to leave a legacy for myself, which sometimes it takes a little push. And this was a big push," she said. "I've never had an opportunity to put together an events to champion a cause to teach other people things. This gave me the opportunity to step on the other side, take authority and make things happen the way I want them to happen."
A mi manera, indeed.
* * *
Want to try your hand at a Legacy-worthy cocktail? Here are the winning recipes from the U.S., plus Gaby Holzer's creation.
SABOR A MI — Tsunetaka Imada's Winning Cocktail
- 1 ½ parts BACARDÍ Añejo Cuatro
- ½ part Plum wine
- 1 part Pink Grapefruit Juice
- ½ part cinnamon syrup
- 2 tsp Lemon Juice
- 2 dashes of Orange Blossom Water
- Garnish: Umeboshi
MAESTRA — Taylor Cloyes' Winning Cocktail
- 1 ½ parts BACARDÍ Reserva Ocho Rum
- ½ part Laird's Apple Brandy
- ¾ Lemon Juice
- ¾ Green Apple Syrup
- ¾ Soda Water
- 1 Egg White
A MI MANERA — Gabriela Holzer's Cocktail
- 1 ½ parts BACARDÍ Reserva Ocho Rum
- ¼ part Lustau Oloroso Sherry
- ½ part Strawberry Syrup
- ½ part Lemon Juice
- ½ Part Aquafaba
- Garnish: Mint Leaf