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Recently, I had the honor and the pleasure of coaching two young women bartenders — both in their early 20s — for their first-ever competition. It was not only their first bar competition, but their first bartending job as well, and one of them had only been behind the bar a few months. We met a total of three times, concentrating on their cocktail flavors, enhancing presentation ideas, organizing their bar setup, and utilizing ambidexterity to maximize their speed. Their co-workers were by their sides every shift, helping them practice their newly acquired skills, offering innovative garnish ideas and recipe feedback.

It was 9 p.m., and I was home when my phone rang. It was the girls’ bar manager. She was calling from the competition. Out of 18 competitors, both of them had advanced to the finals. We were ecstatic! Through joyful tears, she promised to text me when the winner was announced. She did — and our girls won, first place and third place! We couldn’t have been more proud of them.

My colleagues and I have often discussed what it takes to build a winning team.

Hiring well? One of them even suggested firing well, but that seemed unlikely to sustain morale. Surely, there was a secret formula, as we all had been a part of what we considered a winning team at least once in our lives. So why was it so hard to pin down how to construct one?

Reflecting on my two young women bartenders, their combined experience barely warranted a résumé mention, yet, that didn’t seem to matter. Skills can be taught. Speed and efficiency can be improved through organization, repetition and focus. The singular distinguishing characteristic both these young ladies possessed, that seemed to elude at least some of the other competitors — the ability to receive and implement criticism.

With Halloween just around the corner, many of us will indulge in our fearful fantasies from the safety of our living room couches, with a bowl of popcorn in our lap, and the comfort of knowing control comes in the shape of a hand-held remote. But when you ask people what their real-life, biggest fear is, the most common answer is — wait for it — public speaking! Well, throw creating four of your own original cocktails in under five minutes, followed by a high-tension speed pouring round into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a bar competition. And while most bartenders will focus on the flavor of the cocktail, the most seasoned veterans will tell you, these days, it’s all about the presentation — the story behind the beverage.

Imagine collecting sand from four different beaches around the island. Now, any local could tell you that the greensand of Diamond Head is distinct from the sugary, fine, white sand of Lanikai, but who would think of comparing the diversity of Hawaiian sand to the differing Inuit descriptions for snow, and presenting their cocktail to each judge on top a unique variation of each of these sands? Or how about carving a tiki icon out of balsa wood, and allowing smoke from a kiawe-smoked mai tai to emanate from its nostrils? Or taking the two competing recipes for the original mai tai — one by Don “The Beachcomber” Beach, the other by “Trader Vic” Bergeron — and placing them both in the same glass, using a foam on top of half the cocktail so you could experience drinking each mai tai separately, depending on which side of the glass you were drinking on? Each of these outlandish, yet creatively ingenious ideas has won a cocktail competition, but only after years of studying and training to polish every last detail of the perfectly flawless technique.

So, how were both my fledgling mixologists able to snatch the golden trophy out of the hands of bartenders, some 10 or even 15 years their senior? They say it takes a village, but the voices of a village, or even an entire country, mean nothing if they fall on deaf ears. You can teach skills, but you can’t teach heart, and the definition of heart is having the humility to acknowledge you have room to grow, and the courage, tenacity and discipline to see that growth through.

These two young women have the hearts of lions, and I am certain that one day, they will also find their roar.

Zombie Mai Tai

0.75 ounces Ko Hana Kea Hawaiian Agricole rum
0.75 ounces Appleton Estate Signature Blend Jamaican rum
0.5 ounces Lemon Hart 151 rum
1.5 ounces fresh pink grapefruit juice
0.75 ounces fresh lime juice
0.25 ounces Hamakua Coast Macadamia Nut orgeat
0.25 ounces BG Reynold’s cinnamon syrup

Shake all ingredients, except Lemon Hart 151 rum, over ice and strain over fresh rocks or pebble ice into Tiki Mug. Float Lemon Hart 151 rum over top. Garnish with carved pineapple fronds and friendly ghost orange peel.

Alicia Yamachika is a bartender and craft mixologist, who currently is the key account manager at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits on Oahu. Follow her on Instagram (@alicia_yamachika). Her column will appear every second Wednesday in Crave.

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