Skip to main content

Kaitlyn Stewart is the ninth bartender, second woman and first Canadian to join the World Class Hall of Fame

Canadian bartender Kaitlyn Stewart, who won the Diageo World Class cocktail competition in Mexico City last month, prepares one of her winning drinks, the Tom Cat Collins.

Kaitlyn Stewart is truly the cat's meow. The 31-year-old bar director at Vancouver's Royal Dinette won the prestigious Diageo World Class competition on Aug. 24 in Mexico City, earning the coveted title of world's best bartender. This makes her the ninth bartender, second woman and first Canadian to join the World Class Hall of Fame, which is sponsored by the London-based alcoholic-beverage company whose portfolio includes brands such as Smirnoff, Crown Royal, Don Julio and Johnnie Walker.

For the gruelling four-day global final, in which Ms. Stewart triumphed over 54 other mixologists from countries as far away as Russia and South Korea, she banged out more than 35 drinks, was tested on every significant bartending skill (including speed, creativity, immaculate technique, culinary acumen and gracious hospitality) and battled it out in the Lucha Libre ring – whipping up six original spins on classic cocktails in six minutes, with moments to spare to pull on a tiger mask and bounce off the ropes to the deafening roar of the 300-plus people in the crowd.

But in the end, it may have been her love of furry felines, along with a determination to be true to herself and keep it real, that pushed her to the top.

"My cats are super important to me," she said on her first day back at the bar in Vancouver this week, while mixing a Tom Cat Collins, one of four cocktails that helped her clinch the championship round.

In that final competition, the top four challengers were tasked with creating four cocktails based on the elements – fire, wind, earth and water. The competitors were given 12 hours' notice and 10,000 pesos ($695.84) to spend. By that point, after subsisting on about three hours sleep a night, Ms. Stewart was exhausted.

Ms. Stewart created a diced pineapple cocktail that utilized all the fruit’s parts, including skin, pulp and greens. Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

"The money stressed me out the most," she explained, dunking a biodegradable paper straw into the pale-pink Tom Cat. The whole contest had been themed around sustainability, which dovetailed nicely with Royal Dinette's root-to-stalk ethos and probably helped her ace the Mex ECO challenge with a diced pineapple cocktail that utilized all the fruit's parts, including skin, pulp and greens.

She already had more ingredients than she needed (having brought with her three suitcases filled with B.C. spirits, homemade shrubs, meads and liqueurs). The hotel was fully stocked with glassware. She had a full test kitchen at her disposal 24 hours a day. And Mexico is a country that is wanting in many regards. Thus, she decided to donate all the money to four international charities that represented the four elements and turned her into a feel-good superhero in front of the judges.

The cocktails were the bigger challenge. She could have taken the directions literally and simply concocted drinks that were spicy, aerated, earthy and watered down. Instead, she decided to equate them with the personal elements most important in her life – family, positivity, authenticity and cats.

Fire and family went hand-in-hand. She had already created a fundraising charred-fruit daiquiri at Royal Dinette last summer with full proceeds going to the Canadian Red Cross's Alberta Fires Appeal in honour of her sister, who had been evacuated from Fort McMurray.

For wind and positivity, she channelled a windmill-themed Ketel One Moscow Mule that represented the mentors who had encouraged her to enter the contest in the first place. "Why not?" former Canadian World Class finalist Lauren Mote said. "One cocktail could change your life." Indeed! Ms. Stewart will now spend the next year travelling the world as a global brand ambassador for Diageo Reserve. Who knows what the future will bring?

Earth and authenticity was all about groundedness, which resonated with her in many ways. She used beetroot shrubs (dirt), tequila (local), Sons of Vancouver amaretto (home) and her own house-made milk liqueur (novel) for a unique take on a cobbler, which wowed even the most distinguished judges.

The Tom Cat Collins helped Ms. Stewart earn the coveted title of the world’s best bartender.

But most of all it was her confident, humorous, down-to-earth presentation that impressed. "You don't have to wear a three-piece suit or have an encyclopedic knowledge of cocktail history to be a competition bartender," Ms. Stewart later explained, as she hunched over the bar in a striped T-shirt and huge smile.

"I'm a people's bartender. I don't care if you drink beer. The most important thing for me is that my customers have fun. From the very beginning, I said, 'I'm just going to be myself. If it works, that's fantastic. If not, I leave with my head held high knowing that I didn't have to conform to any expectation of what I should be doing.'"

From a customer's perspective, Ms. Stewart's warm, winning attitude is very welcoming wind of change in an industry that is too often dominated by hipster pretentiousness and insider geekiness.

But what about cats and water? How did she ever put those two together? As it happens, Ms. Stewart is enough of a spirits nerd to know that in the late-1700s, the quality of drinking water in London was pretty horrific. A lot of people drank alcohol instead. There was a pub in Moorfields called the Puss and Mews, where gin was dispensed from the mouth of a wooden cat after customers dispensed a coin into the levered paw.

Ms. Stewart's Tom Cat Collins is refreshing, delicious and one-of-a-kind cocktail made with Tanqueray No. Ten gin, Aperol, milk liqueur, grapefruit juice, Peychaud's bitters and soda. It may not change your life, but it sure did hers. Congratulations, Kait A Roo (as she is known to her friends). You have just put Canada on the global bartending map and now walk with lions.