Will Isaza is the Boston-based bartender who will represent the United States at the global finals of the Bacardi Legacy cocktail competition this May in Amsterdam. “Everyone can make a great cocktail once you make it to that level,” he says. “It’s just a matter of does that cocktail actually represent who you are and your story?”
Fortunately for Isaza, he has a story to tell. He’s doing so with the Gloria, a cocktail made with Bacardi Añejo Cuatro that he calls “the culmination of my career experiences, influenced by all the personal flavors I have had in my life.”
This isn’t Isaza’s first experience with Bacardi Legacy. He entered the 2016 competition, winning regionals. A 2017 effort saw him make nationals. He submitted a cocktail for entry in 2018, but was passed up. This year, he won nationals, along with the Los Angeles-based Melina Meza (two national winners are selected for the United States to compete in the global final).
Incredibly, Isaza isn’t the first in his family to nab the Bacardi Legacy nationals title: his brother Moe Isaza claimed it in 2018. And Isaza’s workplace, Blossom Bar in Brookline, Massachusetts, is owned by 2015 nationals winner Ran Duan, giving the bar a unique pedigree.
Neither Moe Isaza or Duan emerged victorious on the international stage, but from May 12-14, Isaza will take his Gloria cocktail to Amsterdam in hopes of winning global glory.
San Juan Throwdown
To enter Bacardi Legacy, Isaza had to submit his cocktail and answer several short questions regarding his own biography.
“Legacy is very story based as far as where you come from, your family, how your cocktail translates to that and how the cocktail can transcend into something more,” Isaza says.
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The cocktails submitted are judged in a blind tasting, and 20 bartenders are selected as semi-finalists. Last February those 20 bartenders competed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where over the course of three days they had to present both their cocktail and a marketing plan to judges. That group of 20 was winnowed down to eight finalists who went head-to-head for the national title.
According to Isaza, flavor was just one of the aspects being judged.
“The cocktail itself has three sub categories which are taste and flavor, aroma, and appearance. That alone takes up the bulk of the score, but there’s a presentation score as far as confidence on stage, and how you look presenting your drink. And there’s a story telling aspect to it as well. So, your story does have its own category.”
The Gloria, which is named after Isaza’s mother, tells the story of his journey from Colombia to Brookline. Its earliest iteration, dubbed La Gloria, was a Passion Fruit Daiquiri Isaza competed with in 2017.
“Passion fruit is the national fruit of Colombia,” Isaza says. “I grew up knowing it as maracuyá.”
It was the 2018 opening of Blossom Bar, which is focused on South American spirits and flavors, that brought the Gloria to the next level.
“The creation of Blossom Bar helped me bridge the gap between creating a cocktail that was good and creating a cocktail that exemplified what I do and my family,” Isaza says. “Here, our bar program is centered around those South American and Latin American ingredients, so it was combining my story that already exists with finding my place in the cocktail-making world.”
One of those key ingredients was a flavor plucked straight from Isaza’s childhood.
“There’s a small hors d’oeuvres in my household that I had growing up, and it’s very prevelant in Colombia, called a bocadillo,” he says. “Typically, it’s just a single toothpick bite of something very sweet with salty cheese. In my household it was guava paste and cheese.”
In the cocktail, the salty element of the bocadillo manifests as a barspoon of mascarpone cheese, which turns frothy after the drink is shaken. Getting the sweet element right was a more complex job.
“I wanted to add a little more depth to it. So I changed out the sweetness to be passion fruit and cinnamon, and a little hint of coffee to balance everything out.”
The final build of the Gloria—as written on the custom-made glass designed to serve it—is as follows:
1 1/4 parts Bacardi Añejo Cuatro
3/4 parts passion fruit cinnamon syrup
3/4 parts fresh lime juice
1/4 part coffee liqueur
1 dollop mascarpone cheese.
“When you read the Gloria on a menu it doesn’t necessarily make sense because people don’t perceive passion fruit, cinnamon, and coffee together as something that will work,” Isaza says. “But the way I like to explain it is, when you have flavored lattes, do they make sense to you until you have them?”
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The Gloria has been served at Blossom Bar since December 2018, and Isaza doesn’t anticipate altering it in any significant way before presenting it in Amsterdam.
“There are not many changes, if any, that I am going to make to the actual drink. I think that the coffee liqueur is the only thing that might be tweaked,” he says.
Training for Amsterdam
Isaza has continued to train for the globals which, like the nationals, will require him to present the cocktail and its marketing plan.
“We have six to eight minutes to make two of the same drink, which in my world is a lot of time,” he says. “You need to fill those eight minutes. Not make the cocktail too fast, because then it’s going to die by the time the judges grade it. Think about every single movement that you do and practice that motion, so you know when you pick up your jigger, when you pick up your tin, and what you are saying when you pick those things up. It’s just repetition, so it becomes second nature. It looks like you are just working behind your bar.”
Isaza has a clear idea of when his presentation is in the right place.
“I like to get to a point where I’m very comfortable in what I’m doing and then stop for a week or two,” he says. “And once I come back, if it’s not the same as it was two to three weeks prior, then I need to keep practicing. If it’s the same after the break, then that means it’s recorded, and all I have to do is press play.”
To gauge his performance, Isaza records these practice runs and reviews the footage. He also elicits feedback from Blossom Bar head bartender Jen LaForge, Ran Duan, and his brother.
“Those are the only three people that will judge me harsher than the general public will,” he says.
Should Isaza triumph in Amsterdam, he’ll be happy to see the Gloria elevated on an international stage. But it’s also the ethos behind the cocktail, and not just its potable contents, that he’d like to see recognized.
“The Gloria will be immortalized in the sense that it becomes a Bacardi classic cocktail. Being the creator of that drink is very cool, and [it’s] insane to accomplish something like that,” he says. “But for me, the story behind it is a story I want to get behind. Bridging the gap between different cultures and different personalities coming together under one roof, knowing that all those cultures and personalities can co-exist peacefully, whether it be behind the bar or doing something out in the world that is a little more meaningful than just making drinks.”