Drink up — Caribbean style | Cookup

Chennette cocktails? Falernum tipples? A creative new generation of Caribbean drinks specialists is changing the way we think about beverages, writes Franka Philip

  • Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

ME
Hear nah, allyuh, last night I had a cocktail that a guy made with chenette. It was bess!

FRIEND 1
Wha? Chenette? Dat not computing!!!

FRIEND 2
A chenette cocktail, yuh say? 

ME
I dunno how he extracted the juice from chenette, but damn, the cocktail was awesome! It was one of the most exciting things I tasted here in Barbados, that win!

FRIEND 1
I cyah imagine chennette with any kinda alcohol, but if you say it was good . . .

Yes, dear reader, that was a snippet of an actual WhatsApp chat I had with some friends back in Trinidad while I was attending the 2018 Barbados Food and Rum Festival. I came away from the festival’s signature rum event, “A Taste of the Exotic”, with one thing on my mind: Jamaal Bowen’s drink called Guinep Guinep, Ahaaa Ahaaa.

Guinep — known in some parts of the Caribbean as chenette, and in Barbados as ackee — is a fruit with a hard seed covered with a layer of juicy pulp. It definitely isn’t the first fruit you’d think of for making a cocktail, but if you know of Jamaal Bowen’s reputation for adventure, then it’s not so surprising. 

Bowen, one of the Caribbean’s top mixologists, is taking drinks culture to a new level. He’s part of a global movement of drinks magicians who are incorporating exotic flavour profiles by using unusual fruits, vegetables, spices, and herbs. 

When I tell the award-winning Bajan mixologist that several months later I still have the taste of his chenette cocktail in my mind, he laughs. “If I give you a drink that has mango or passion fruit or banana, it’s something you are so accustomed to, you might link it to another drink, but it probably isn’t a standout experience,” he explains. “I try to do something different from the others — so, for example, I think about using things you would have eaten during childhood or things you quicker think about eating than drinking.

“When I do drinks for certain events, like Barbados Food and Rum,” he continues, “I focus on making you, the patron, feel you’re having an experience that you can have only with me.”

Bowen is an enthusiastic proponent of using local ingredients to create new drinks with different and unique flavour profiles. He jokes, “It’s easier to think about the ingredients I haven’t used.”

As we speak on the phone, I hear him moving around his lab, bottles clinking as he looks on the shelves for a few of the concoctions he’s made. “I have salted sea grape, salted gooseberry, hog plum, soursop and cinnamon, dunks, tamarind, ‘five and five’ (five fingers and five spices), and a whole lot of stuff. These ingredients and these flavour profiles are what give us the edge.”

In Trinidad, meanwhile, Martin James is also challenging himself to use local items and cheaper ingredients to take his mixology game to a new level. Many of the herbs and other flavourings he uses come from his own backyard. 

“My mixologist friends would come and admire the garden,” he says. “At one time I had six different types of mint, several varieties of basil. I started to use the herbs for infusions and then I started doing shrubs” — acidulated concoctions of fruit, aromatics, sugar, and vinegar — “and other experiments.”

James is part of a mixology collective called Artistic Bar Concepts. The team of six works at all levels in the food and drink industry. They recognise that people are moving away from sweet frozen cocktails in search of fresh and more natural options. This inspired James to use teas in his drink creations. “People in the Caribbean are accustomed to teas, but only in one way. We have been doing tea-flavoured cocktails that are fresh, close to natural, and offer a unique drink experience,” he explains.

“We’ve observed that while there are some people who have lots of money to spend, in this economy, there are more who have limited budgets but want to still enjoy a good drink when they do go out,” he adds. “We want to use ingredients that are cost-effective, and tea is one of them. I created a wild hibiscus and blueberry cordial and paired it with gin, a spirit that Trinis are just getting used to again.”

According to James, this is a time of great changes in the drinks industry. “Long ago, the thing would be for people to drink to get ‘tight,’ but that’s not the case anymore. People want an overall good experience that doesn’t include being sick the next morning.”

Rafael Reyes — who works with drinks giant Diageo, and travels extensively training bartenders and mixologists all over Latin America and the Caribbean — agrees. “We don’t want people to drink more, we want them to drink better. This is why we invest so much in staff and bartender training worldwide,” Reyes says.

“Globally, people are now not only more conscious about what they drink, but conscious about the effort behind the drink itself. In other words, we no longer drink to get drunk, we drink to enjoy the quality of the liquid and appreciate the experience of a tailor-made drink.”

Trends in drinks culture evolve quickly, and every spirit and beverage maker is working hard to capture the market of millennials, who are definitely not drinking the way their parents did. Nowadays, tequila and gin are the biggest sellers on the world market. Reyes explains that drinkers are more interested in “the craft element” these spirits have as part of their production.

“People no longer want to drink something just to drink,” he says. “They want to equally enjoy the story behind the brand and their unique processes. Gins and tequilas offer just that.”

Though both spirits are becoming big hits in the rest of the world, local favourites vary depending on where you are in the Caribbean. According to Jamaal Bowen, falernum is all the rage in Barbados right now. This liqueur, dating back to the eighteenth century and said to be invented by Bajans, is lime-based with added sugar and spices.

“Falernum is trending not just in Barbados,” says Bowen. “If you walk into any bar in the US or the UK and you say you have a bottle of falernum, you will see how quickly bartenders will gravitate towards you and try to get the bottle off you. It’s amazing.”

Bowen adds, “There’s a cocktail called Grind and Toil that’s made of kola tonic, falernum, and lime juice or grapefruit juice — depending on how acidic you want the drink to be. The falernum and the kola tonic are supposed to be the sweeteners in the drink. It’s very simple and easy, and the good thing is that you can find all the ingredients for the drink in any bar in Barbados. The drink is shaken and strained into a martini glass. You serve it straight up, and the garnish is very simple — use either a fresh lime wheel or a dehydrated lime wheel. Add to that some locally made kola tonic bitters, and you have a classic drink that’s total Bajan.”

Bowen said Bajans love their “straight” drinks, particularly rum. “We are not necessarily a mixed drinks culture, it’s something we are growing into.” He explains that cocktails are more likely to be drunk at fetes and all-inclusive events like Taste of the Exotic, at which chefs work with mixologists to develop cocktails to complement their meals. 

Drinks culture is a huge deal in Trinidad and Tobago, and always has been. During the annual Carnival — which fell in early March this year — the major drinks distributors run extensive campaigns for weeks, each aimed at making a respective product “the drink of the Carnival.”

One particular drink, the classic aperitif Campari, spread its colourful banners and merchandise all over the festival — you couldn’t turn around at a Carnival event and not see a distinctive red Campari cup in someone’s hand. But after all that marketing, has Campari with its bitter flavour won over the taste buds of a people who love their drinks sweet and strong? Only time will tell. Beyond the fetes and the marketing, mixologists say that while drinkers are sometimes enticed to try these products, what people are really after is a unique drinking experience.

I’ll give the last word to Rafael Reyes, who takes a big-picture view. “We have been serving the same blended, colourful ‘all-inclusive’–style cocktails for years, and kind of got stuck there,” he says. “However, the palate of the people vacationing in our countries has changed, and they look for more crafted cocktails and complex flavours. I believe that in the region we should evolve and diversify our style of cocktails to cater for these needs — but keeping our Caribbean flair.”

Jamaal Bowen runs the Top Shelf Bar Academy in Bridgetown, Barbados. Check them out on Instagram at @TopShelfBA. You can also check out the latest bar tricks with Martin James at @trinibarchef and Rafael Reyes at @reyesoncocktails.