Local Innovation at the Bars of Conrad Maldives Rangali Island


A humid Maldivian afternoon in Conrad Maldives Rangali Island. The rain has just cleared and the sun decides to make a hot appearance. The Hilton South East Asia and India (ISEA) F&B Masters – Hotel Level, Bar Challenge, has just come to an end – the winner, awarded. 

The Arrival sits down at Rangali Bar to have a chat with the two contestants of the Bar Challenge – Ali Hamdan, the winner of the challenge, and Nishaam Shareef, who came in a close second. The contestants had to make three drinks; one long cocktail, one short cocktail and one signature cocktail – all three in under twenty minutes.

Ali Hamdan

Long cocktail – Moscow Mule

Short cocktail – Dry Martini

Signature cocktail – Dweep Unani, made with local ingredients such betel leaf and Dhivehi beys (traditional medicine of the Maldives).

Hamdan was the winner of this year’s Grape Expectations Maldives Bartender’s Challenge, held from July 7 to 8, 2018, in Kurumba Maldives. 

Nishaam Shareef

Long cocktail – White Lady

Short cocktail – Ramos Gin Fizz

Signature cocktail – Kashikeyo, which translates to screw pine fruit in English, the star ingredient of this drink.

Nishaam previously won second runner up for SIMDI Diageo Bartender’s Challenge, held from August 15 to 16, 2018, also in Kurumba Maldives. 

First, we had a chat with Hamdan, a dedicated senior bartender and one of the top local bartenders in the country, with high hopes of, one day, becoming a beverage consultant trainer. 

Let’s go back to the start. What kindled your interest in becoming a bartender? 

Well, the first resort I ever joined was Herathera Island Resort in 2008, which is now known as Canareef Resort. I think it was one of the longest resort islands, which stretched out by 4.45 kilometres and it’s located in Addu Atoll. I was a bar waiter with absolutely no experience. 

The first day I got there, they showed me the bar, where I met the Piña Colada. The very first drink I ever saw, was this cocktail. Funnily enough, this cocktail was first created by a bartender who used to work in Hilton in the early fifties – the Caribe Hilton Hotel’s Beachcomber Bar in San Juan to be exact. So I saw this drink and I asked the bartender what it was. And he said it is a Piña Colada, a rum based cocktail. I was like wow, that’s so cool. I mean of course, the service side is also great, but this is how I got interested in actually mixing drinks. I saw that bartender make the cocktail with rum, pineapple juice and coconut cream. I still remember it so clearly. That was my first introduction to the world to bartending and mixing drinks – the Piña Colada!

Very interesting. And how long have you been working in Conrad Maldives?

Eight and a half years.

So, mixologist and bartender, what’s the difference?

In my last bartending course in Singapore we asked the the trainers the same exact question. Our role as mixologist and bartender are essentially the same.

A mixologist is kind of like a consultant. He uses his imagination and deep understanding of the products to come up with good combinations for amazing cocktails. All this magic happens before customers even come to the bar. 

As bartender, our role is to make guests feel comfortable, and give them the best experience at the bar – while mixing up classic as well as new cocktails which have been thought of by the mixologist. 

When you work as a bartender long enough, you gain a lot of experience and knowledge which leads you to move into the consultation area. When you become a mixologist  - you start making your own drinks, your own recipes, creating your own menus for the guests, coming up with unexpected blends. A bartender becomes a mixologist when he starts using his own knowledge and imagination to come up with new and fascinating drinks.

Ultimately bartenders and mixologists are the same but with different levels of understanding of the products.

First, we had a chat with Hamdan, a dedicated senior bartender and one of the top local bartenders in the country, with high hopes of, one day, becoming a beverage consultant trainer. 

Let’s go back to the start. What kindled your interest in becoming a bartender? 

Where do I start... so last year I joined the Grape Expectations Maldives Bartender’s Challenge where I made two orginal cocktails; one martini style and one tiki style. The martini I made was called Fiyaathoshi Martini which means “Pink Martini” in English. When I came up with Fiyaathoshi, I was thinking about actually creating a cocktail that very much represents the luxury of our industry. This industry here in the Maldives is so much about luxury, and this martini represents just that. The tiki cocktail I made is kind of the opposite. It’s a more relaxed, tropical drink. I named it “Dhivehi Passion”, the main ingredient being our national fruit; the passion fruit. 

Last year, I also created a locally and environmentally inspired cocktail, as well as designed its display case. I called it Rukuraa, and its main ingredient is none other than actual rukuraa – I think we call it “toddy” in English right? It is the juice extracted from the flower buds of the coconut palm. This specific cocktail comes in a small glass bottle – a recycled Fever-Tree Tonic Water bottle. The bottle is decorated with traditional coir rope and topped with a recycled cork from a gin bottle called Monkey 47. The cocktail is served in a “serving case”, which is quite unique. I used regiform, ekel sticks and hard book cover to make the case, and it took me about a week to design it. I created this cocktail for last year’s country level F&B Masters Bar Cup, and won. That win gave me the chance to go to Sri Lanka for another competition where I got 1st runner-up.

Congratulations! And what’s your favourite cocktail to make?

It’s a classic - the Negroni. 

Whats your favourite ingredient to use?

Lemongrass, kefir lime leaves and passion fruit.

What’s the biggest challenge you face when it comes to making your own cocktails?

Well, when it comes to making cocktails in the Maldives, there are various small challenges. Especially if I want to use local, traditional ingredients. Nowadays its not very easy to find traditional recipes and ingredients – we would have to dig quite deep. We would have to go back to our grandparents or even our great grandparents to find out about the ingredient and recipes of the olden days. A lot of our parents didn’t fully introduce us to these things the way their parents introduced it to them.  And so, we have to go back to the older generations to learn more.

Do you get nervous at all during competitions?

Of course. But I feel it along with excitement. Both feelings are present. 

The first time I ever mixed on a stage, I couldn’t finish it. I got kind of a panic attack. I was so nervous! That was in 2014. 

And what’s the best feedback you ever received from a competition?

So, I tried for the Hotel Asia Mocktail Competition. It was the first competition I joined and we had a trial round here in Conrad. The whole management was present and I was shaking like crazy. I couldn’t even finish it on time. In any case, I went to the competition. I knew I was the worst person there. The chief judge was the bartender for Ravifruit – we had to make the mocktails with Ravifruit puree. I was waiting patiently to be judged, almost all the bartenders from all over Maldives were there. This judge, in front of everyone, said to me “You are not a bartender. You don’t have any style, any skill. You’re just nothing special. What you did was nothing. You don’t look like a bartender when you are making the cocktails” I told one of my supervisors that he was totally right, I was doing nothing, I was just mixing drinks with no flair, I had to improve. And that was actually the best comment I ever got from a chief judge. He was so straight forward. The main thing he said really resonated with me; “You don’t have any style, any skills”. So after that I really started practicing my style, skills and techniques while making cocktails. It took me about three and a half years to master it. And this year, I joined Grape Expectations, and won. I took his comment in a positive way. That’s the best thing I think, to be positive.

When you prepare a cocktail what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

My mise en place. If I have no mise en place I have to run here and there looking for everything. Preparation is key.

So, do you have any advice for other Maldivians who wish to follow the same career path as you?

I was expecting this, I knew this question was coming. It a very tough question for Maldivians. Its challenging for a Maldivian as a bartender, its not easy. However, if you want to achieve something, you set your goal and you go for it. You will see so many barriers, but if you focus on your goal and you plan for it, you will achieve it.

What’s next for you?

Before the end of September, I’ll be heading off to Tokyo for my Master Mixology Training. I’m looking forward to that, there is always more to learn.

We then spoke to Nishaam, known by many of his co-workers as Dhiggarey. A jolly young man with a great attitude, Nishaam is a waiter at Conrad Maldives Rangali, brimming with the talents and capabilities of a true bartender. 

As a waiter here in Conrad Maldives, what got you interested in bartending?

Honestly, I never thought of becoming a bartending, I just went from one resort to another. In 2012 I was working at Anantara when my supervisor told me about a fling bartender course. It’s not every day that locals get a chance to do anything with bartending, so I thought, why not!

I ended up getting second place in the course. It was just so interesting and a lot of fun mixing up drinks. My interest in it grew so much that I asked my manager whether he could shift me to the bar area. He did, but I never got to go behind the bar to actually make drinks.

That was, until I got to Conrad a few years later. First, I worked in the buffet restaurant, after which I worked in The Quiet Zone – the adults-only, open-air bar where we had today’s Bar Challenge. There are usually two bartenders in The Quiet Zone, so if one of them are off, the waiters get to take his place. Once again, I was able to make these fascinating cocktails and my interest re-ignited in this field. 

From there, my manager gave me the opportunity to move here, to Rangali Bar. I’m still a waiter but I love being here! I love making drinks and I actually get the chance to do so, here in Conrad. Whenever they ask me to get behind the bar, I am over the moon and go with no hesitation!

So, you have plans to eventually be a bartender?

Of course. I have set my sight on that position. 

And how long have you been working in Conrad for?

Four and a half years. Next march it will be five years.

You joined the SIMDI Diageo Bartender’s Challenge this year, what or who encouraged you?

My bar manager did. I didn’t even know that this challenge existed until he came up to me and told me about it. He goes “Dhigga! There’s a competition coming up. You have to get ready.” And I said of course I’ll get ready. He is the one who sent me there. It is because of him that I got that chance. He knows how interested I am in it. Whenever there’s time, I always tell him that I want go behind the bar to learn from the more senior bartenders.

It’s awesome that you have someone like your manager who believes in you…

Of course! Helantha Kosala is his name and he gives me so many opportunities to keep improving myself.

And what would be an important lesson you’ve learned bartending?

Never give up. A lot of obstacles will always come your way, and even if you don’t get it right the first time, keep trying! Like today, Hamdan and I both participated and he won. But it doesn’t mean I lost, it’s just beginning for me. Nothing is impossible if you keep trying.

What about challenges? Have you faced any since entering the world of making drinks?

At the moment, I would have to say ‘time’. As a waiter, finding the time to go behind the bar to make drinks is quite difficult. Especially if there’s a competition coming up. As a bartender you get to practice your skill whenever you’re at the bar. Me, being a waiter, I can only practice once my own shift ends. Everyone over here is very helpful; whenever my duty is over, they push me to go practice and they teach me a lot. Time and practice are two very important things if you want to get ready for something.

What’s your favourite cocktail to make?

I think it would have to be the Piña Colada! First of all, it was created by a man who used to work in one of the Hiltons, and second, it is a world-class cocktail. Over here, we even have different variations to the Piña Colada. We give it a bit of a Maldivian twist.

Sounds like you guys keep things exciting over here, what’s the twist?

Sometimes we add other flavours to it, and we top it off with creamy coconut foam we make in house, making it extra yummy. We tend to get quite creative with this cocktail.

How did you come up with Kashikeyo, the cocktail you created for today’s Bar Challenge?

When my manager told me about the Hilton ISEA F&B Masters Bar Challenge, I kept thinking what do I make for my signature cocktail. I wanted to include something Maldivian in it for sure. 

First, I decided to use ahiva, it’s an extremely smelly fruit. I’m not sure about the English name for it, I think its called noni fruit. I was actually thinking of making a cocktail using this fruit, so I got a few noni fruits and put it in uncooked rice to ripen it. When I finally took it out of the rice… oh what a smell! It was ripe, alright, but no way was I going to use this! No one would have wanted to taste something that smelled so horrible. It was back to the drawing board.

It was only afterwards that I thought of kashikeyo, or screw pine fruit, as it’s called in English. I knew the smell and the taste of kashikeyo and thought, why not? So I went to Malé, brought back some kashikeyo to Conrad, and got to work. Riyaz, the senior bartender here, gave me a lot of advice and showed me that there was so much we could do with this fruit. That’s how I came up with the cocktail, Kashikeyo.

So what’s next on the agenda?

Next month I’ll be going to the Hotel Asia International Culinary Challenge. I just got the E-mail today confirming my placement! Also, as second runner up for the SIMDI Diageo Bartender’s Challenge, I got the chance to go to Singapore for a mixology course – that will take place next year and I’m really looking forward to it.