You may not have heard of Jerry Thomas but you are almost certainly beholden to him. Thomas was a bartender, or more specifically the bartender; the man who invented modern mixology and helped change the drinks industry forever in the 1980s. Impressive going, especially as Thomas died in 1885.

Large in character, girth, and ambition, Thomas tended his way across the bars of 19th-century America, earning national renown for his alcoholic concoctions and the flair with which he created them. In 1862 his Bar-Tender’s Guide became the first drinks book ever published in the US, and isn’t so much the Bible of mixology as its Rosetta Stone – the text that unlocked the secrets of an era. Next time you order a Manhattan or a Martini, raise a toast to ‘Professor’ Thomas, who built an industry through skill, showmanship, and the foresight to write it all down.

To appreciate the scale and scope of the industry Thomas spawned, you need only visit Bacardi Legacy, the global competition to create the next great cocktail of the age. (Made with Bacardi, naturally.) This is no marketing gimmick: the successful drink must be replicable in the average sports bar, by the average bartender. (Cockatoo tears might be a great mixer but they’re a nightmare to source.) It will be introduced to thousands of bars around the world, and its creator will be an industry superstar with the considerable might of Bacardi at their back.

Just ask 2017 champion Ran Van Ongevalle. “Since my win so much has changed. I have travelled with Bacardi to New York, New Orleans, Mexico City, Miami, Puerto Rico, Dubai and Berlin; the Bacardi network has also supported my own travels, allowing me to host seminars and serve my Legacy drink Clarita across India and Asia.”

So, it’s a big deal – and the 2018 edition is the biggest deal yet. Over eight months, roughly 10,000 bartenders and their drinks are whittled down to 34 of the most exciting talents to wield a shaker. These select few, along with the great and good of the drinks industry, plus media, descend on Mexico City for a week of competition, carousing, and cocktails – often simultaneously.

The Grand Final is held in the foundry of the Museo Numismático – a vast stone hall used to mint coins until 1992. (The walls are scorched black where the furnaces once burned.) Only eight bartenders remain, the others eliminated over the previous two days. Someone’s career will shortly change forever

“I’m not only looking for the drink,” says Legacy judge Alex Kratena, former head bartender at Artesian. “I want people to make me feel like I’m actually at the bar and not at a cocktail competition. Great stories are amazing but every single element should be spot on.”

On taking the stage, each bartender has two minutes to prepare ingredients and equipment, then a further seven to make the cocktail while explaining its inspiration and desired legacy. Watching someone make a cocktail sounds about as enthralling as watching someone make a bed. But all great bartenders are great performers: every presentation is infused with wit, charm and passion. It’s intoxicating stuff.

You will leave here, winning or not, having made a difference in many people’s lives

The ticking clock heightens the suspense – no situation is made less fraught by the addition of a ticking clock. Most bartenders don’t touch the ingredients until at least halfway through the allotted time; everyone finishes within ten seconds of deadline.

Ana Alicia Herrera, the home favourite and only female finalist, takes on the persona of a sorceress, crooning the story of her Devil Woman as though an incantation. Australian James Irvine makes his Bocado while performing a standup routine. Eric Van Beek of the Netherlands presents Cariño in free verse: “Dear family, I am on a mission to spread love, that’s why I’m being persistent, listen, I have a vision, you and I, we are not so different…”

Then there is Akira Abe of Japan. Immaculate in a tuxedo, and with a delivery reminiscent of Barry Scott from the Cillit Bang commercials (“HI I’M BARRY SCOTT”), Abe prepares Tales of Ocho with such gusto that you fear life can only offer anticlimax once his seven minutes run out. Perhaps Abe shares this fear, which is why he proposes to his girlfriend during the onstage interview: removing his tux to reveal the words “Marry Me” written on the back of his shirt.

The seven minutes onstage mark the final steps of an exhausting journey. To win the 2017 Legacy, Ran Van Ongevalle experimented with 24 different cocktails, or rather “24 different versions of the same drink. Different measurements with different oils – my garnish was an oil – then with a lot of variants. Use 50 of this and 20 of that; no, use 60 of this and ten of that. Tweak, tweak, tweak.”

For his presentation, Van Ongevalle studied orators such as Barack Obama. He rehearsed around 70 times. “I wrote seven speeches. I took a marker, and everything that I said in all the speeches I marked. Then I put all of these different sentences back together, because that was the stuff that came out of my heart.”

Requiring such dedication, and with the prize on offer, you might imagine Bacardi Legacy to be intensely competitive. Yet the night has the communal bonhomie of a school talent show; nobody cheers a finalist more than their rivals, without any hint of a ‘I just lost Best Actor at the Oscars’ grimace.

“Everyone here wants you to win,” says Van Ongevalle. “Talk with each other: be friendly, be social. That’s the most important thing about the competition. You will leave here, winning or not, having made a difference in many people’s lives.”

The cocktail revolution

If Bacardi Legacy has travelled a long way over the past decade then so has the cocktail industry itself. Today, every bar worthy of the name will have at least half a dozen classic cocktails on its menu: Old Fashioned, Mojito, and so on. Most will have far more, including bespoke mixtures of their own creation. We’re not talking plush hotels or stylish speakeasies: chains such as Revolution and All Bar One can conjure up a perfectly drinkable Negroni.

Yet this ubiquity is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that can be traced back to 1980s’ New York and the reopening of a bar called Rainbow Room. The Rainbow Room had been a staple of post-prohibition New York, and restaurateur Joe Baum was keen to bottle the flavour of that heady era. Baum pointed his bartender, Dale DeGroff, in the direction of an old drinks book by a certain Jerry Thomas – and the quality cocktail was reborn.

In the intervening three decades the industry has boomed, and the cocktails have become increasingly ornate. (That cockatoo tears joke? It’s only just one.) Every major city has at least one specialist cocktail bar – and in London, San Fran and NYC, a speakeasy is practically Starbucks with sharper glassware. Bartenders are treated like chefs, bars such as Dead Rabbit, Milk & Honey, and Artesian are as feted as Noma or The Fat Duck.

But what actually makes a good cocktail? It sounds obvious but primarily what goes in it. DeGroff emulated Thomas by only using the finest ingredients in his drinks; now mandatory practice but revolutionary at the time.

“When it comes to creating the drink,” says Alex Kratena, “it all starts with the produce. Deep understanding of this will enable you to tackle the drink from a much more interesting perspective than if you just know a tiny bit.”

Kratena compares cocktail creation to speaking a language. “Language consists of lexicon and grammar. Lexicon is all the words, all the ingredients; grammar is the way of combining them together. The more words, ingredients, you know, and the better you understand how to combine them all, the more interesting language you can speak, the more exciting drinks you can create.”

What makes a great bartender is being motivated by the people sitting across from them.

Under Kratena, Artesian was voted the world’s best bar for four consecutive years. The man speaks fluent cocktail – as does Daniele Dalla Pola, owner of the Nu Lounge tiki bar in Bologna. Sporting long black hair, a piratical beard, and a Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to the midriff, Dalla Polla is one of the more colourful figures at Legacy; he resembles Fidel Castro holidaying in the tropics.

“You need time,” he says of mixology. “You need to have patience. For everything. Like in the kitchen, you can’t make bolognese alla ragu in one hour: you need eight hours! If you want to make a risotto, you need 20 minutes: you can’t make it in five. You need time.”

As with so many crafts, the digital era opened up mixology to the masses; millions of YouTube tutorials, blogs, and online recipes ensure cocktail appreciation is broader than ever before but cocktail expertise has been diluted – a fact Dalla Polla bemoans.

“A lot of information is on the web. Everyone has a masterclass; people work for two, three years and then they’re opening a school to do masterclasses. They’re confusing people. You need to wait.”

Yet then there is the likes of Pamela Wiznitzer, forced behind the bar by the recession, self-educated via YouTube, and now creative director at Seamstress and president of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. Eloquent and assertive, she’s the type of woman you’d follow into battle, let alone a cocktail bar on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

For Wiznitzer, the ability to make a great cocktail doesn’t automatically make you a great bartender. First and foremost, you must love the customer. “The difference between a good bartender and a great bartender is the intention of why that person is there in the first place. If that person is there because they just love creating cocktails and shaking things, they’re never going to be a great bartender. What makes a great bartender is being motivated by the people sitting across from them.”

People don’t realise how complex the job really is... Bartending is not throwing a few things together.

So hospitality trumps everything? “It’s the most important part of what we do. I couldn’t care less if you even know how to make a Cosmo. If you can just make a vodka soda but you can hold a bar of people for hours, I’m going to hire you. You can teach anyone how to make a cocktail. You cannot teach them the authenticity of hospitality. That’s innate.”

Wiznitzer cites “living legend” Doug Quinn as the benchmark for great bartending: “He is the Jerry Thomas of our time.” In 2010, Quinn was the subject of a New York Times profile entitled, ‘At P. J. Clarke’s, the Bartender of Your Dreams’. The article opens: “My mother had eyes in the back of her head; Doug Quinn must have them in the palms of his hands. How else to explain the way he muddled mint for a mojito – and went on to make the rest of the cocktail – while glancing alternately at the door to see if anyone new was coming in, at the far end of the bar to see if anyone was telegraphing thirst, and at the guy in front of him, who was babbling anew about something or other? Not once did Mr. Quinn look down at the drink. It was like bartending in Braille.”

“He commanded that room effortlessly,” attests Wiznitzer, who spent hours watching Quinn at work. “He was the ultimate conductor of a neverending orchestra.”

It’s a lovely analogy; Kratena uses a similar one in our interview a day earlier. “A bartender shouldn’t be the star of the show: you’re more like a DJ, you’re creating the atmosphere, and you’re creating the vibe. You should be there but you’re not really visible.

“People don’t realise how complex the job really is. The set of skills required: from understanding of the finance, being able to cost a product, being able to forecast, being able to create recipes, doing all the health and safety hygiene, risk assessment, creating atmosphere, understanding how every person wants to be looked after. Bartending is not throwing a few things together.”

Girl power

The 34 semifinalists of Bacardi Legacy represent 33 different nations (America has two) – yet all but three are male, and Ana Alicia Herrera is the only woman to make the final eight. This lack of female representation is more symptom than cause, the product of an industry that has always been a man’s world.

“The patriarchy is alive and well,” sighs Wiznitzer. “It’s going to be up to men to understand that there’s a platform, and they need to make room on that platform and make space to help promote women.

“That’s the only way we make changes: not just women doing the work but by men stepping up and doing the work as well. That’s what we’re missing in this industry; the men aren’t willing to step up and do that work.”

The women are most certainly stepping up. Speed Rack’s Twitter bio describes itself as “a cocktail competition for women, by women, to support women with the mission to find the county’s fastest female bartender and support breast cancer research.” Co-founded by Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero, Speed Rack donates $100,000 every year to breast cancer charities, as well as offering a vital platform for female mixologists to showcase their talents.

“In the past decade, the biggest contribution to our bartending world has been Speed Rack,” says Wiznitzer. “They’ve launched thousands of careers for people. They’ve given a platform to thousands of people who never had voices, never had opportunities, never had networks. They’ve done more to advance this industry than anyone else that I know.”

Ivy Mix has a backstory as exotic as you would hope for from someone named Ivy Mix. As a teenage bartender in Guatemala she smuggled mezcal from Oaxaca across the Mexican border to be drank in Café No Sé – the first mezcal bar to open outside of Mexico.

There wasn’t room for a woman in the image of what a mixologist was supposed to be

“Never got caught. One time when we were coming back our stupid van driver picked up four policemen hitchhiking, and we had an entire van full of illegal booze. He was like, ‘what can I do? I can’t not pick up policemen hitchhiking – it looks sketchy!’” She chuckles. “Never caught, but certainly some close calls!”

Despite being cooler than all of us, Mix still had to fight for her success. In 2008, she moved to New York and found a job as a cocktail waitress. “I was amazed at what you could do with spirits. I didn’t know anything about cocktails – I was like, woah, this is so fucking cool. I’m done being a cocktail waitress, I want to be behind there! And the answer I got was no: you can’t come back here. You’re not allowed here; you’re allowed there. That’s where you belong.”

By now the cocktail revolution started by Dale DeGroff in the Rainbow Room was sweeping America; every other bar was attempting to recreate the stylings of its prohibition predecessors. “Everyone was trying to be Jerry Thomas, basically,” says Mix. “The moustache; the mixologist. And there wasn’t room for a woman in that image of what a mixologist was supposed to be.

“Our industry is an extremely welcoming crew. I don’t think there’s anyone being actively, like, ‘no women!’ But I do think there was a thing: this is what I want my bar to look like so this is what it’s going to look like, and women will work on the floor. Women are going to be hostesses or cocktail waitresses, and the boys will be barbacks and bartenders.”

Since those early rejections, Mix has been awarded the American Bartender of the Year at the prestigious Tales of the Cocktail festival, and opened her own Brooklyn bar with the pioneering Julie Reiner. She may have triumphed in the personal battle but the wider war is a long way from won.

“The girl from Guadalajara, the Mexican finalist, works in a coffee shop. In a fucking coffee shop. Maybe she really wants to work there, but why isn’t she working in a great bar? What’s that all about?”

You don’t have to be a white guy to be a cocktail bartender. We are such an undiverse community

Yet Alicia Herrera occupies the peak of her industry; how to raise more women onto that peak? How to bring more young women behind the bar in the first place?

Pamela Wiznitzer has a manifesto: if the bartenders aren’t coming to the bars, then the bars must go to the bartenders. Go to the colleges; go to the youth centres; hell, go to the coffee houses. Encourage people to explore a talent that might otherwise be left unlocked.

“When there are career fairs at colleges and high schools, we don’t have a table that says, ‘Hey, have you considered bartending as a career?’ That’s just not happened.”

The cocktail industry, says Wiznitzer, cannot sit back and assume change will occur yet take no steps to effect this change. Slapping a vacancies sign in the window isn’t enough – you need to reach the people who wouldn’t think to apply, because they haven’t been encouraged to see mixology as a viable profession.

“That’s how we’re going to make more space. That’s how we’re going to get more women involved. That’s how we’re going to get more people from the LGBTQ community, and that’s how we’re going to diversify and get more people of colour involved. We’re never going to back these changes, and we’re never going to grow as an industry, if we don’t put in the work ourselves.”

It’s inspirational stuff, and it will take inspirational people to lead the way – not only women like Wiznitzer and Mix, but also their male counterparts. Mix is cautiously optimistic. “I think that it is changing, and I hope it changes more in other parts of the world. You don’t have to be a speakeasy to serve cocktails anymore – you can make really good cocktails in a coffee shop, apparently. You don’t have to be a white guy to be a cocktail bartender. We are such an undiverse community, it’s kinda sad, and I’m hoping that will change.”

Leaving drinks

On stage at Bacardi Legacy, the victorious bartender embraces their opponents and judges, clutches the trophy for the cameras while wearing the euphoric expression of someone suddenly transported into the best night of their life. (And probably the longest: nobody parties harder than a bartender.)

Not the Mexican favourite Alicia Herrera, nor the recently engaged Akira Abe. Our winner is the rhyming Dutchman Eric Van Beek and his lyrical celebration of Cariño – the values of love, family, community. “As individuals we stand alone, but together we can make the world a better place if we’re willing to fight.”

Who knows if Jerry Thomas would have agreed with this sentiment – he was, first and foremost, an entrepreneur.

Pamela and Ivy probably did.

For more info, see Bacardi Legacy