London (CNN Philippines Life) — London Cocktail Week is an annual event that celebrates the city’s most inventive drinks and the people and bars behind them. With the UK capital capturing 10 spots on the recently-released World’s 50 Best Bars list, it’s clear as to why the top names in mixology flock to London to fine-tune their skills and learn new tricks. Being a Filipina in London for nearly six years now, I have seen the rise in interest in our culture and how this is largely led by the food and drink industry. I’ve been delighted to see the flavors of our islands showcased in cocktails like the Lambanog Mule at Smithfield Market speakeasy Oriole and the Philippine Dream at Jamaican rum bar 3 Little Birds in Clapham.
“I believe that Filipinos are genuinely generous in spirit and [are] explorers, [too],” says Cristhel Molina, UK Marketing Manager for the Bleeding Heart Rum Company, which produces Don Papa Rum. “Our curiosity in exploring different tastes and experimenting with flavors pushes the envelope when it comes to making food and drinks.”
To further cultivate this adventurous spirit, the Don Papa team held the first ever Chef & Shaker competition in Manila in March of this year. The contestants were tasked to create cocktails made with Don Papa Rum and pair them with dishes created by the chef competitors. The victorious bartenders, Enzo Luna from Run Rabbit Run and Aliuss Abrazado from The Peak at Grand Hyatt Manila, joined winning chef Kel Zaguirre from Locavore on a one-week trip to London where they had the opportunity to show off their winning concoctions at London Cocktail Week.
“One of my goals for this trip was to visit as many bars in the UK as I could,” shares Luna. “[I’m] strictly paying attention to every detail [so that I could] bring back home what I learned and apply it to Run Rabbit Run.” Despite being a newcomer to the world of bartending, Luna’s family has been in the spirits industry in Cagayan Valley for the past 30 years. His winning cocktail, called “Doña,” makes use of elderflower liqueur, Fernet Branca, basil, egg white, passion fruit syrup, and calamansi, to play on a gender role reversal of the Don.
Luna says, “[When it comes to what I’ve learned about] flavors and techniques, it would probably be the diversity of flavors present in London, brought about by the diversity of people and cultures in this melting pot. [Also], people in the service industry here smile a lot. It’s crazy!”
“I think what I’ve learned the most is how sustainable the London bar scene is,” says Abrazado. “They really know how to maximize the local ingredients and I think this is something I can bring back with me when I return home.”
His winning cocktail already shows a strong focus on all things local. “The Voice” brings out the tropical notes of the rum with grilled pineapple in a toasted rice wine reduction, spiced chocolate bitters, egg white, apple citrus soda, and lime juice. Abrazado honed his craft as a flair bartender before being taken under the wing of mixology masters Clayton Munar and Matthias Giroud at Buddha Bar Manila. “They definitely influenced my artistic approach to making cocktails and they encouraged me to start joining cocktail competitions. This ultimately led me to the opportunity to work for The Grand Hyatt Manila,” he says.
Aside from their takeover of The Mayor of Scaredy Cat Town (an underground bar in Shoreditch hidden behind a SMEG fridge), the duo got behind the bar at the London branch of Romulo Café as Zaguirre introduced diners to his winning dish “Wrong Sisig.” Despite being faced with cooking in an unfamiliar kitchen, Zaguirre soon found his groove and shared that he enjoyed the challenge of cooking for the group of discerning Londoners.
“I wanted to [play] on the idea of a dish that’s ‘street,’ [tastes] good, and [is] taken as a beer or alcohol match,” Zaguirre says. “I found that in sisig. Hearty and savory notes from the dish blend well with [the rum]. I accented [these with] some pickles and sour notes from the garnishes on the dish.”
Served in a tin can, Zaguirre’s version of the popular sisig was created using rillettes of pork belly, pork ribs, and bacon; pickled onions and mushrooms; and was topped with salmon roe and a sauce made with calamansi, sinamak (spiced vinegar), and ginger emulsion. “Modern Filipino food is like looking at tradition critically — looking for what can be updated, what can be perfected, what can be more, what can be less — without taking away the soul and character of [the dish],” says Zaguirre.
To top off their weeklong sojourn, the team visited bars like The Connaught (currently at No. 2 on the list of World’s 50 Best Bars) and Lyaness (last year’s No. 1 bar in the world). As they ate and drank their way around the capital’s hotspots, the winners were able to not only share a piece of the Philippines with London, they were also able to learn from the movers and shakers of one of the world’s most vibrant cities.
“We wanted to bring some authenticity to London Cocktail Week by featuring a Filipino chef and bartenders,” says Molina. “The UK itself is quite diverse with different cultures, cuisines, and flavors quite widespread in the country. I’m very happy to see Filipino cuisine being recognized in the UK. We wanted to reinforce this momentum by bringing in more Filipino faces with worldwide talent and introduce them to the audience here in London.”