Get in the spirit with the charismatic and spirited Maurice Blair, bartender at Kingston's Spanish Court Hotel. Kingstonian by birth, Blair was raised in Kingston as well as St Elizabeth. I install myself at the Skybar around the recently renovated pool bar and immediately wonder how Blair first entered this wonderful world of mixology.
“It's a world that I've always lived in,” says Blair, who enjoyed seeing bartenders in action, whenever he got the chance. “I love to see a well-stocked bar, the colours and textures. Anywhere I have seen bartenders making drinks, I stop and watch to see how it all comes together. Seeing it on the shelf is one thing, but when you see the process it is another. For me, that was amazing, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
As the youngest of seven children, Blair grew up in a house that was always fully-stocked. “Our house was always vibrant and happy. We had our times, but it was always pleasant and chirpy. My mother always had spirits in the house. There was a whole bar under her bed — gins, rums, a bottle of tequila at one point in time! She would take them out for specific occasions. You would just see a bottle appear not knowing where it came from. The first time I saw a bottle of Beefeater gin was when I saw her putting it back under her bed, always with a warning — leave my stuff alone, do not go under there. And no one did. My mum is an amazing woman! My father was an avid J Wray & Nephew white overproof drinker. He would have it with room temperature tap water. May daddy's spirit rest in peace.”
After leaving Meadowbrook High [School] Blair set his sights on working on a cruise ship. “At the time, the only cruise ship I saw was a picture of a huge vessel parting beautiful blue water. The sign read: The best cruise ship in the world, Norwegian Cruise Lines. I imagined being a bartender on a cruise ship and even though I wasn't trained at the time I thought that I would work on a cruise ship one day.”
Though that day never came, Blair was still able to realise part of his dream of becoming a bartender. “Instead of travelling the world, my guests travel to me. I travel the world through my craft! It opens a whole new world of discovery learning more about where they are from. I have a list of all the countries in the world and usually tick off the country of a person I have served. With each guest I am transported to another place and sometimes, you can bring people together around the bar.
“I got the surprise of my life two years ago when I served a lady at the Cabana Bar. It was just three of us — two guests and me. After hearing the lady speak, I became curious about where she was from. I also like to play the accent game. It is a major ice-breaker and is game-changing. People like that, you take genuine interest in them. We were trying to pick up the lady's accent. The other guest thought she was from the UK and Europe — Germany, Austria, Belgium — turns out she was from Malta — I have never met anyone from Malta! That night, I went home and checked Malta off the list.”
“I love bartending and mixology! I love calling myself a bartender and I have a huge passion for it. I love my job. I do a lot of reading on my own time and discover new drinks, and the bartenders who make them. I learn about their persona.”
Blair's career started in banqueting, in 2001, at various Kingston hotels. “Banqueting was like a foundation for me! It was there I learned about service.” Routinely, I would go and stand in the bar to watch the bartenders at work, after completing banqueting service — I met the infamous Beefeater gin again! I was also in school and received certification in Wine Service and Catering from B & E School of Catering, located at Norwood Ave at the time. It was there that I discovered cocktails like the Mai Tai and Yellow Bird. They caught my eye.”
I asked Blair how he landed at Spanish Court Hotel. “I was working somewhere and a friend of mine called me to work a function at Spanish Court Hotel. I had walked by and wondered what it would be like to work there. This was October, 2010. The function was in Valencia C — it was six of us and we were very experienced in banqueting. One of the managers, Lee-Ann Godfrey — I have a tremendous amount of respect for that lady. Godfrey briefed us for the evening. When the function was over she came back to the room and told us that we were amazing! I said it is just a pity it is just one function. To my surprise, Godfrey reminded me that it was not just one but three weeks of functions! I was excited. After the three weeks the restaurant manager asked if we could stay for Restaurant Week! It was crazy busy, but we did it! At the end of that week, I prepared my résumé and asked Godfrey if I could give it to her. She said yes and took my résumé. Then she asked me when I could start working at Spanish Court. I replied, 'My time is your time.' Godfrey replied, 'can you start tomorrow?' I accepted with hands raised in jubilation... I've not looked back!
I was put on the roster for the very next day. It began with a one-month internship, and it is just history from there. I enjoy being here. I like the diversity of guests that Spanish Court attracts. I've met some amazing people here right at this bar that have made an impact on my life over some incredible wine and cocktails!”
Blair continues to be inspired and wants to see more indigenous fruits used in cocktails and innovation in what is currently being offered. People like cocktails that are not as alcohol-forward. Now we tipple!
Mai Tai à la Maurice Blair. “I learned to make this when I was in school. When you are making a drink, proper ratios are what make the drink! It allows you to have consistency; that's why you should always use your tools.”
The Mai Tai (at the Skybar) combines Kingston 62 White, Myers rum, triple sec, pineapple juice, orange juice, lime juice, simple syrup, and Amaretto liqueur. It is shaken, then topped with the Myers for presentation. “The floater brings an interesting view to your drink!” Agreed. Taste profile: Tart and sweet, with pineapple lusciousness. “Kingston 62 white is easy drinking, and it makes everything buoyant. So, when you are sipping it goes down really smooth because it's an underproof rum.”
“The Caipirinha is originally from Brazil and is made with Cachaça” (a distilled spirit made from sugarcane juice). “We don't have that in Jamaica, so we use the Kingston 62 white rum. It is really a punch by nature; here we make it with a little something extra. This cocktail is made with Kingston 62 white, J Wray & Nephew overproof, white sugar (simple syrup), limes, and is topped with club soda. Club soda pulls the flavour out of any fruit or herb. This is why we use it when making a mojito because you want it to pull the mint out! Taste profile: Good ole lemonade with a hint of alcohol. You do not even taste the white rum …not really, anyway. There is a hint of it on the back of your palate. “You have to temper the overproof white rum so that it does not overpower the drink.” I get a hint of it at the back of my throat on the finish.
Now for a Negroni. “Both sweet and dry vermouth are used to make a Negroni. Vermouth is wine-derived and not many people know that. This is a drink you build and stir. This is not a drink you shake - you will destroy the entire character of the drink. You build, stir and it is made with gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. I like to incorporate the heavier ingredient last [for presentation]... it changes the character of all the ingredients as it makes its way down to the bottom of the glass. If you were to combine the gin and Campari it would not taste the same as a Negroni. One of the reasons for that is the herbal notes in the vermouth bring a particular complexity to the drink and that's what you are looking for to make it complete.”
Blair uses Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth and remarks it is the best he has used (herbs from 40 different countries …says so on the bottle.) This is what he wants to bring out in the Negroni — all those herbal notes. If you do not use a good vermouth in your Negroni your drink is going to be flat. You do not want to spoil a classic like a Negroni. It is an amazing drink.” Taste profile: Bittersweet. Campari makes this drink sing. It is the type of drink that, when made well, as the ice melts the drink stands up from the first sip to the bottom of the glass without getting watered down. This is that drink!
Buzzing with curiosity as to what is coming next I am delighted with an off-the-menu surprise — my favourite! It all starts with a spice rum (Captain Morgan). Blair tells me that this drink is usually a shot, but we are making it into a drink today. “It's warm; you need ice,” Blair says. Ice is a bartender's best friend! Simple syrup is added to the rum in a shaker. Then you add, lime juice, blue curaçao, pineapple juice, and Cocomania coconut rum. Shake well. Blair prefers using lime juice and simple syrup because you can play with them and get the right balance instead of using sweet and sour mix. The drink is frothy and is served with a slice of fresh cut pineapple. Taste profile: Pineapple coconut lemonade. Sour-sweet! Just the way I like it!
Now for our fifth and final cocktail. At this point I have had four cocktails and am beginning to feel boozy. Another off-the-menu surprise. What is key is that the bartender and his audience can get creative using amazing ingredients that are already at the bar. I allow myself to be guided by Maurice and love how he can effortlessly combine flavour and flair to create fabulous and tasty cocktails.
This cocktail gin-based cocktail topped with a Pinot noir float is called the Newport Snap. Blair came across this cocktail while he was researching. “I took an interest because I've never found wine in a cocktail. I made it for a few guests, and they liked it, and I liked it. I chose this drink specifically for the last because I always like to leave a question mark with my guests: What else can I tap into and colour outside of the lines? It teaches and exposes you to do something new beyond what you know, to do something that you want to know. You cannot be in your comfort zone every day! I am learning to step out of my comfort zone in different respects while continuing to grow the business of the bar here at the Spanish Court!” Taste profile: Tart cocktail with intense notes of Pinot Noir. You do not even taste the gin!
Maurice is a poet and a scholar! Lots of big energy. You must make this one of your stops when going #outside. Table reservations are recommended for large groups, especially of 8-10 people. The Skybar opens at 4:00 pm daily for happy hour or any hour.
Let's lift your spirits! Find and follow me on Instagram @raihndrops