By Hairee Lee
I didn't know this until I get there (and by there I mean the W Hotel for the 2nd Annual Libation Elmination in partnership with BostonChefs.com): bartenders make great interviewees. They're job is to be hospitable while pulling or shaking or pouring or stirring up drinks. So you have a question? Ask and they'll give you a generous answer. You need them to pose for a photo? Sure! Do you mind if I record you? Not at all.
To say the least, the 6 contestants, vetted over the course of months from numerous entries, are all welcoming and incredibly generous with their time while focused the entire time on making their cocktails for the Libation Elimination guests (or "boozers and shmoozers" as BostonChefs.com put it in their advertising blog).
Tequila is the common thread in all the cocktails for the event. Each bartender has been randomly paired with a cocktail and instructed to create a drink using it as the base spirit. It's a clever way to calibrate the pallet of the voters. All the tequila has been donated by the distillers. And these were some heavyweight tequilas. by that I mean, top notch stuff.
First up is Liz DeOliveira of Bleacher Bar. ((It's named for being tucked under the bleachers at Fenway Stadium.)) Liz was paired with Cabo Wabo Tequila Resposado. Her cocktail had ginger, lemon, and a red fruit juice.
Liz has been a bartender for 7 years and at Bleacher Bar for 2. She's assisted tonight by Elizabeth (to distinguish her from Liz). The two of them look liked like sexy ying-and-yang pair: Elizabeth, blond and in a tight white dress, Liz, brunette and in black short shorts. Hands down the most attractive team at the competition. Unfortunately, their cocktail was a disaster.
I couldn’t taste the ginger. In fact I couldn’t really taste much of anything. Everything just seemed watered down. When I talk to other libationers, they say the same thing. One guy says it was horrible. A woman says she couldn't really taste anything. I hear ya. I later discover from talking to a couple of women that they were told it was a low cal cocktail, made with a sugarfree juice.
And then it makes sense. It's like when you try those sugar free, fat free, "healthy" cookies and you wonder why the whoopie pie tastes so bad. It's for vegan diabetics with gluten allergies! No thanks.
When I reach for a cocktail, I'm not counting calories. If I were, I would order a vodka soda or water.
Fortunately, this is my first one and it only gets better from here.
Next up is TJ White of Dante.
“It’s called The Smokin' Don." TJ is young and cute and he works it with a flirtatious look from under his lashes, but it's not coy and he still manages to maintain the distance between bartender and customer. I'm sure it's a dance he's mastered over the 9 years he's been behind a bar. He could be one of the undergraduates that swarmed into the city for back-to-school. I asked him his age. Twenty-nine. He’s been a bartender for nine of those years. Two and a half at Dante. He’s "been around the world bartending in the Carribean, New York, and now Boston."
In the words of Rachel Zoe, I like pretty boys. Or at least I like to look at them. And TJ is fun to watch shakin' this Smokin' Gun. Ordering a cocktail, after all, is more than just about the cocktail. It's about the performance you get in the making of it. It's much more physical and theatrical then just asking for a glass of pinot.
TJ calls his cocktail the "Smokin' Don."
"We have Don Julio [Anejo] tequila, simple syrup infused with jalapenos and rosemary, add a bit of fresh pineapple juice and lime juice and a little smoked sea salt rim, hence the name Smokin’ Don." He gives a little smile.
I'm interested in the simple syrup with the pepper and discover that to make it he cooks the sugar, water, jalapenos and rosemary mixture for 45 mintues.
“Boil down the jalapenos and add the rosemary at the end.” I thank him and he says, "Oh it was my pleasure." Oh no, TJ. It was mine.
I take a sip. I love the spice and the smoke. Full of flavor. ((Unlike the other one.)) I love the salt on the rim and I can taste the spice from the jalapeno, but it's subtle.
Some thoughts by other cocktailers were: “It’s got nice spice to it”; “Too much smoke"; “Unexpected, but not unpleasant”; “I like the smell of this, a smokey smell”; “I didn’t like the smokiness. It’s just too much”; “Yeah, too much.”
Contestant #3 is Joe Black of W Lounge. He's working with
Joe's station is by far the most elaborate and thought-out with several carved pumpkins and seasonal decorations displayed on the table. Good lord, I think. If he starts squeezing out pumpkin pie in a glass I might throw up.
Don’t get me wrong, I love pumpkin pie, especially Laura’s. But I don’t think that all flavors should be allowed to be transformed from one state of matter to another. Like skirt steak ice cream from an episode of Iron Chef. Revolting. It totally flopped with the judges. Like I didn’t see that coming.
“It’s called La Gran Calabaza or “The Great Pumpkin”. It’s a tequila and pumpkin puree based cocktail with a little agave nectar and lime juice and fresh ground cinnamon."
Agave nectar, as I found out from making the "King James Porch Swing" (coming tomorrow on DS), is like a honey that comes from the plant used to make tequila. Joe told me that. And how fitting since he's using tequila.
Joe chose this flavor profile because, “You don’t see enough people doing pumpkin cocktails.” ((When I think about it, he could have a point. There are a slew of pumpkin beers that show up in my liquor store beer cooler every fall and most of them are, on my palette, tiresome. Every year it’s the same. I get excited from all the pumpkin beer promotions. The memory of my last experience with pumpkin beer has faded over the course of the Earth completing its orbit around the sun.
So I order it at a bar or buy a six pack and after a couple of sips, I remember why I don’t like the stuff. It’s too heavy on the pumpkin and spices, just way too enthusiastic and desperate and aggressive and standoffish. I just don't think it's friendly and mature. Like a hormonal teenager. No thanks.))
I don’t think that all flavors should be allowed to be transformed from one state of matter to another. Like skirt steak ice cream from an episode of Iron Chef. Revolting. It totally flopped with the judges. Like I didn’t see that coming.
Joe's cocktail is surprisingly light tasting. The lime juice cuts through the heavier nutty flavors of the pumpkin, giving it a nice balance. My exact words at the time of trying it are:
“Wow, this is pretty tasty. It’s got this tang, but it definitely has the fall flavors and you can smell the cinnamon. It’s, well, it’s like pumpkin pie in a cocktail glass, but it doesn’t feel heavy or, or [my voice trails off.] I don’t know how he did it.” ((No cream, thank God in the recipe.I found some horrible sounding cocktails while vetting recipes for the Fall Cocktail Series. I couldn’t stomach the ingredients list for most of them let alone commit myself to making and then drinking it.))
Beside Joe is Chad Arnholt of Citizen Public ((They got their 2am license last month, which I find totally appealing.)) He's been paired with Espolón Tequila Blanco.
Chad's one of these people I come across sometimes and you can immediately tell what they just have looked like as children. ((I have this believe that I've held onto since forever that if I can't see the child in someone, whether right away or after getting to know them for a while, that they're not to be trusted.)) That's not to say he looks like a kid. And he's no sophomore in bartending. For instance, if you go on Citizen Pub's Facebook page, you'll discover that Chad recntly made teh Barenjager Cocktail Competition Finals late last month. And he also made it to the final round of Libation Elimination.
For his entry, Chad was thinking "It’s the end of summer, start of fall, and [I] wanted to look towards summer, but give a nod to the season. So I start with this flenny (? ((My voice recorder clearly missed something))) citrus nature of this tequila, add a little bit of late season fruit--strawberry--some lemon, add some sherry(?) ((not sure if "sherry" is what he said)) notes. I wanted it to be more than just a blended daiquiri, margarita style drink. Coco Lopez [cream coconut] to thicken it up so you get this chocolatey, tequila, fruity [drink]. It’s making your warm, but cooling off for summer.” His assistant also grated some fresh nutmeg on top.
I ask Chad how long he’s been a mixologist, he laughs and says, “I’ve been a mixologist for about an hour and a half. But I’ve been a bartender for ten years.” Chad’s down-to-earth attitude is righteously appealing.
Which is why I wish I like the cocktail more.
The flavors in Chad’s cocktail seem muddled. I don’t really taste the strawberry or the cream coconut. I can't taste the tequila much either. The nutmeg on top is just confusing.
I tell Nate, our resident photographer, “It’s like they decided to toss in a bit of fall at the last minute. Like wearing an sort of tired summer dress with a pair of Havaianas and then suddenly deciding to grab the camel coat on the way out the door.” Confusing.
Nate loves it. In fact, it's the one he ends up giving his gold coin to. To each his own.
Elizabeth Powell of 49 Social wears a fedora and a huge black and yellow watch. She's also got a sweat band around her forearm the way Michael Jordan used to wear it before he retired. This woman came to play. With Espolón Tequila Blanco.
ASIDE: I won't, for the life of me, remember the tequila Elizabeth uses for her cocktail so I will call her her at 49 Social. She’s no longer working there, I'll be told by Samir, the host at 49. But, he'll tell me, she qualified for the Libation Elimiation contest during her tenure at 49. I will leave my name and number with him and he will promise to get in touch with her and pass on my digits. She will return my call within 15 minutes and offer me the entire recipe of her cocktail. ((Here's Elizabeth's recipe: Put into a shaker 1.5 ounces of Espolón Tequila Blanco tequila, 1/2 ounce of Cachaça 51, 1/4 ounce of honey simple syrup, 2 drops of Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole Bitters, 1-1/2 ounces of pink grapefruit juice, 1/4 ounce of orange juice, 1-2 pieces of mint, ice. Shake, strain and serve with garnish of grapefruit peel.)) Can you say totally unexpected and totally cool?
"It’s a Whippet," she says, when I ask her about her drink. Traditional Whippet is made of vodka, orange juice, and raspberry cordial, basically a screwdriver with a splash of red sweetness. Elizabeth's innovative take incorporates two different kinds of bitters by Bittermens.
In spite of having had several cocktails already, my attention is caught by the Mole Bitters on her table. What da? Made by Bittermens, a small batch cocktail bitters makers in Brooklyn, NY, their Xocolatl Mole bitters and Burlesque bitters (in the form of a mist applied to the cocktail right at the end) make it into Elizabeth's drink.
The flavors are interesting. Bitter. But I like bitter beers and coffee and grapefruit so I'm not put off by that. I wish there was a bit more sweetness to balance out the bitterness. But definitely one of the most interesting cocktails at the competition.
Last but not least, is last minute contender Domingo Berreras of Market . Domingo has a sombero swinging on his neck and these funky acrylic glasses. He reminds me of Christopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future. His placard, placed in front of his station table, is (badly) handwritten and the sombrero is (at first) corny.
“It’s called the 'Desperado' because I’ve been desperately running around the last minute trying to get this done. It’s got fresh grated ginger that’s been steeped in fresh squeezed lime juice. Then you strain off the ginger, add white cranberry juice, a little simple syrup, Don Julio Añejo tequila (a light amber tequila) and I garnish it with pears poached and soaked in acai juice." ((From Domingo I learned that acai isn't pronounced 'ah-KAI', but is pronounced 'ah-SAH-hee'.))
And the thing is Domingo is ahead of the game for my gold coin because I like to munch through my cocktails. Whether it's olives in my martini, onions in my Gibson, celery in my bloody mary, or cucumbers in my Hendrick's and tonic, I love having a little snack included in my cocktail. So ten points for Domingo.
And then there's the flavors itself. The ginger and lime pair perfectly with the tequila, the effect Liz from Bleacher Bar was unable to accomplish with her cocktail. The acidity of the lime is balanced with the sweetness of the syrup and the burgundy cubes of poached pears, which looks stunning against the pale yellow drink and taste so yummy.
I drop my coin in his bowl.
And the winners?
The judges--Alejandro Alvarez from Stella Reataurant & Bar, Jenny Johnson of NECN, Jim Clerkin of KISS108, and Paul Schiavone of BostonChefs.com--and the guests came to the same conclusion as me:
Joe Black of W Lounge with his 'La Gran Calabaza'
1st place and winner of Libation Elimination, 2011:
Domingo Berreras of Market with 'Desperado'
Congratulations to all the competitors for making it to the finals. And a special woot!woot! to Domingo with the last minute first place cocktail. It was awesome.