Ask Philip Antoine about his approach to mixology, and he’ll tell you that he doesn’t make drinks so much as he creates liquid art. Those are fancy words coming from any bartender but especially one who lives and works in Barbados, an island whose cocktail scene is defined more by its swim-up resort bars than its poetic mixology.
Yet still, the Cocktail Docta, as Antoine is called on the island, is turning locally grown Caribbean fruits, herbs and vegetables into his own masterpieces. And we’re not talking about the usual suspects like mango, banana and guava.
“We head into the kitchen a lot more to use stuff like sea grapes, local plums and leaves from fruit trees to create unique flavors,” says Antoine, who’s the lead bartender at Fusion Rooftop restaurant on the west coast of the island. “We even dabble with the deconstruction of food, seeing how we can take those same ingredients and make them into cocktails.” (To that end, he’s working toward obtaining his BarChef accreditation this year.)
Take the sea grape, or Coccoloba uvifera, a species in the buckwheat family native to coastal beaches in the Caribbean. The plant bears large pitted fruit that starts off green and gradually ripens to purple. Its juice can be used in shrubs and syrups to add a salty tang to libations, much like sea beans, and boost other flavors. For his Ocean Spray cocktail, Antoine uses them in a syrup that’s mixed with cucumber-infused Barbados white rum, grapefruit bitters and amaretto, garnished with sea salt.
Antoine uses sea grapes, Sargassum and fat pork, from left, in his cocktails (image: Malcolm Manners)
He has also toyed with using Sargassum, a type of brown macroalgae found in shallow water and coral reefs. The main challenge is removing or lessening its overtly saline flavor that tends to overpower drinks.
And then there’s fat pork, which has absolutely nothing to do with four-legged livestock. Chrysobalanus icaco is a coastal tree that thrives in sunlight and bears thin-skinned, globular fruit that’s generally macerated with sugar, which finds its way into Antoine’s concoctions.
Right now, Antoine is tight-lipped about the locally inspired recipes he’s creating for an upcoming competition where he will be defending his bartending title. (He serves as both a Barbados culinary ambassador and Angostura ambassador, won a gold medal at the 2015 Taste of the Caribbean awards and was the winner of the Barbados Food & Wine and Rum Festival mixology competition in 2013, 2014 and 2015.)
But he hints at a drink with sweet potatoes—a crop that thrives in Barbados’ warm climate—that incorporates the tuber via an infused rum, a muddled mash and a garnish made with a dehydrated slice of sweet potato. Local sweet potato liqueur is also shaken in the Liquid Conkie, which also mixes spiced-infused fresh pumpkin juice, coconut milk, raisin and brown sugar syrup and rum spiced with with nutmeg, almond essence and cinnamon, garnished with toasted coconut flakes.
“Bartenders are finding creative ways to bring this ingredient into local bars,” he says.
Among his peers, Antoine is unofficially known as the Spice King for his use of nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon, allspice, bay leaf and ginger. They appear in drinks like his award-winning 1966, which shakes Mount Gay Extra Old rum, local lemon juice and a spice-infused syrup, poured into a coupe, garnished with a vanilla and passion fruit foam, finished with freshly grated dark chocolate and crowned with a star anise pod.
“Because we are known as the birthplace of rum, you can imagine that rum plays an integral part in local mixology,” he says. “Rum can be found in almost every household on the island, making it the choice spirit for any punch bowl or cocktail mix.”
White rum is his go-to in a Negroni variant. It’s infused with botanicals that give it similar flavors to gin, then mixed with house-made vermouth and Campari liqueur that has been manipulated to better cozy up to the sugar cane spirit.
(image: Ness Staite)
The cocktail community in Barbados continues to grow, he says, with enthusiastic bartenders looking to push the envelope. “What’s trending is the use of infusions and mastering the flavors of rum,” says Antoine. He’s partial to the Cockspur Splash line, with flavors like citrus mango, green apple and (his favorite) coconut pineapple.
And Antoine says he would be remiss not to mention mauby, a popular beverage made with sugar and the bark and/or fruit of the colubrina tree, whose flavor is an acquired taste that’s sometimes compared to root beer. Fermented and boozy or nonfermented and served as a soft drink, like everything else Antoine serves, it’s undeniably local and proudly Barbadian.