Lifestyle

Cocktail City — Saddle to the West!

Bar None

with Debbian Spence-Minott

Thursday, April 11, 2019

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Recently, I journeyed to our second city Montego Bay and to one of my all-time faves, The Half Moon Hotel. There is a magical feeling you get once you enter the chequered-tile lobby of this beautiful property. Very attentive team members ensure that you feel you are home away from home. My stop was a quick one; well, so I thought, having driven from Kingston with the intention of making an about-turn. That was the plan until I met Donnine Wilson, Half Moon Hotel's lead bartender. Wilson blew me away (this does not happen often) with her sense of purpose, organisation, captivating conversational skills, and of course her mixology prowess. Wilson is the winner of Half Moon's Internal Bartender Competition, having developed several cocktails including the festive libation dubbed 'Legacy 65' in celebration of the property's 65th anniversary.

Wilson beamed with pride when she shared her ideation behind the development of this cocktail. She wanted to make a connection with Half Moon's past and its present, using natural herbs and spices. The Legacy 65 cocktail is comprised of pimento liqueur, fresh ginger, lemongrass-infused syrup (lemongrass is used across the property, especially in the spa), fresh lime, pineapple juice (the pineapple is the symbol of hospitality) and Blackwell Rum. Wilson highlighted the connection with Blackwell rum and the Half Moon Hotel. Half Moon's Marketing & Communications Manager Danille Gordon confirmed that in 1958 Chris Blackwell, who had been teaching water-skiing at the Half Moon Hotel, decided to record the in-house jazz band led by Bermudian, Lance Hayward, a young, blind jazz pianist. Blackwell's first recording, an LP of jazz standards released in 1959, was the genesis of his independent record label — Island Records. In 2016, Half Moon paid homage to the band members and Chris Blackwell by hosting a historical retrospective celebration for the band and its work and exhibited the original copies of the album.

Wilson then led the cocktail journey which I can only describe as first class!

As is customary, we sought to know a little more about our newly discovered bartending talent.

 

Thursday Food (TF): How long have you been employed to Half Moon Hotel?

 

Donnine Wilson (DW): I have worked at the Half Moon Hotel for 15 years. In 2004, I was a HEART trainee and started as a server. Within six months, I was confirmed as bar server. After three years, I was promoted to bartender. For the last four years, I have been lead bartender.

 

TF: How did you make such consistent progress?

 

DW: I believe I am a hard-working individual with integrity. My manager also saw that about me and the potential of what I could be. I am also a quick learner and I am passionate about bartending. By the way, bartending was not my first career choice but after some time I developed a sincere love for the profession. In my earlier years as a server, I assisted with making drinks when the bars became busy. My manager even said that my cocktails tasted better than some of the bartenders! I was soon moved to the bar.

 

TF: Tell us about your educational development.

 

DW: I have attained:

• Food & Beverage Service — Level 1

• Bartending — Level 2

• Maître d' — Level 3

• Certificate in bar supervision from the America Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute

• Management of Food & Beverage Operations (with honours)

 

TF: Quite an impressive track record! We know you have many memorable moments, but share one that has challenged you and left you smiling.

 

DW: One day while at the bar, I made a cocktail for a guest and her husband. The guest told me that she was the owner of a bar in Sweden and would love for me to come and work there. I smiled but did not believe. Within a month, the management of the Half Moon advised me that I was offered the opportunity to work in Sweden and that they would give me the approval to do so. This was my first time travelling outside of Jamaica — a 14-hour flight.

 

TF: What did you learn from your Swedish experience?

 

DW: I was surprised to learn that no one drank frozen cocktails. This is a phenomenon of living in the tropics. I had to quickly become familiar with the classical style of cocktail-making. Since visiting Sweden, I've also travelled to Michigan and that visit confirmed this. Craft cocktails and beers were the order of the day. I had never seen so many beers in my life — over 50 of them! Those experiences broadened my knowledge and appreciation of the bartending profession. In addition, I found that the international clientele leaned more towards cocktails made with fresh herbs, spices, syrups and infusions. At Half Moon, we are incorporating and adapting to this and pushing cocktails geared towards wellness; for example, the Frozen Mojito — there are so many health benefits for peppermint!

 

TF: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

 

DW: I will still be right here at the Half Moon but in the capacity of bar manager. The team here at the Half Moon are like family. We look forward to our return guests. I have seen guests who were mere toddlers become adults. We have a bond with our team members and with our guests. Service is at the core of what we do. As teammates, we have a passion for guest satisfaction. I encourage the younger team members to follow their passion, not a paycheque. This was the advice I received when I just started, 15 years ago. Presentation is key — guests eat and drink with their eyes before consuming with their mouths.

 

TF: What differences do you find when you compare the bars with hotels?

 

DW: Bartenders in the hotel business must appreciate costing and how each ingredient adds to the overall cost of a cocktail.

• Bartenders need to elevate service standards — it is not always about the tips or the paycheque but guest satisfaction.

• Greeting your customer and being hospitable is central to the hotel business. Guests can go anywhere in the world. The fact that they selected the property you work on and your bar means that you have to demonstrate through excellent service how appreciative you are. This is the differentiator of the Half Moon Hotel.

• Remember, skills are trainable but one must have the right attitude.

 

TF: Any closing words for persons in the profession and those aspiring to become professional bartenders?

 

DW: 1. Follow your passion, not the paycheque.

2. If you don't enjoy what you do, leave it.

3. Purchase books and read them!

4. Enrol in educational courses.

5. Have mentors within the profession.

6. Go out and observe; take the good and replicate them.

On that note, the interview was concluded and I happily returned to Kingston overjoyed by the talent I just had the pleasure of interacting with. Cheers to you, Donnine Wilson, and the team at Half Moon!

 

The Jamaica Observer Table Talk Food Awards 2019 committee is pleased to announce the nomination of Donnine Wilson as a finalist of the inaugural Bartender of the Year Award. Continue to follow @jamaicaobserver and @bartendingacademyja for more information about the other nominees and this very prestigious and exciting designation.

 

Readers' Feedback: Imagine if we embraced life's moments big and small, without reservation. Together, we might fill the world with contagious joy. Please share with meyour wines, spirits and cocktail experiences or comments on the above article at debbiansm@gmail.com, or follow me on IG @debbiansm #barnoneja.

 

Debbian Spence-Minott

An Alumna of the US Sommelier Association

CEO of the Academy of Bartending, Spirits & Wines

President – Jamaica Union of Bartenders and Mixologists (JUBAM) Limited


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