Episode 068 - Battle of the Bartenders

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What’s shakin, cocktail fans?

Welcome back to another episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast, and thanks for joining us for this SPECIAL episode!

What’s so special about it, you may ask? Well, it was recorded on location at the Catoctin Creek Distilling Company in beautiful downtown Purcellville, VA, where the Modern Bar Cart team got to attend a killer event called “Battle of the Bartenders.”

This cocktail competition featured five mixologists from Northern Virginia, who went head-to-head-to-head-to-head-to-head in hopes of impressing a panel of judges with their creations, winning the evening, and advancing to the next round of this multi-part competition.

The competitors included:

Round 1

The secret ingredient for the first round was Paw-Paw Vinegar. Okay, first question: what is a paw-paw?

According to an article by Serious Eats:

“Pawpaw trees, the largest edible fruit trees native to North America, produce greenish-blackish fruit, usually three to six inches long. The flesh is pale to bright yellow and contains a network of glossy, dark brown seeds. A pawpaw's flavor is sunny, electric, and downright tropical: a riot of mango-banana-citrus that's incongruous with its temperate, deciduous forest origins.”

Not something you come across every day at the grocery store.

 Round 1 Cocktails (Photo Credit: Charlie Berkinshaw)

Round 1 Cocktails (Photo Credit: Charlie Berkinshaw)

After sampling this tangy, tropical-tasting vinegar, our five courageous bartenders immediately set to work crafting their first drinks.

Andrew and Jeff apparently had the same idea - following the sourness and tropical notes to their logical conclusion in a Junglebird cocktail - something that normally calls for lime and pineapple juice. Meanwhile, Sam put together a refreshing whiskey sour, and Phil made an original cocktail using Catoctin Creek’s pear brandy and a Chartreuse-soaked herbal garnish.

Once prepared, the cocktails were lined up before the three judges, Catoctin Creek International portfolio manager Chad Robinson, Brian Jenkins owner of local restaurant Monk’s BBQ, and Trevor Baratko, editor in chief of the Loudon Times-Mirror.

Round 2

At the end of the first round, Phil, Andrew, and Sam were tied for the lead with one point apiece. The bartenders batched up a tray of small pours for guests to sample, and it was on to round two and the next secret ingredient: Snake Oil Hot Sauce, courtesy of the Woodbury Kitchen!

Now, as you can imagine, spiciness is tricky to incorporate into a cocktail. It’s one of those volume knobs that can very easily be tuned too high or too low. So our bartenders had quite a task on their hands in round two.

During this round, a couple cool things happened.

As predicted before the competition, Samet busted out his cocktail smoking rig and got to work smoking some of Catoctin Creek’s Roundstone Rye whiskey. He used apple wood, which is a lighter, more delicate smoke than something like a mesquite or a hickory that you would expect to find more commonly in barbeque dishes.

 Photo Credit: Charlie Berkinshaw

Photo Credit: Charlie Berkinshaw

Visually, a smoked cocktail is really exciting. It’s a head-turner and everyone at the bar is going to notice when you break out the smoking gun. It’s something akin to ordering a dish that’s prepared table-side with an open flame at a nice restaurant.

Unfortunately, the smoked cocktail didn’t receive any votes from the judges. And here’s why.

While all eyes were on Samet, Jeff Berry was quietly consorting with a bottle of our Liquid Gold Ancient Trade Bitters. He paired them with the snake oil hot sauce, Roundstone Rye, Green Chartreuse, Ginger, and Lime, with a fresh sage & basil garnish.

And this makes a lot of sense. Indian dishes are often very hot and spicy, and they rely on ingredients like turmeric, fenugreek, holy basil, and cardamom (all of which are present in the Liquid Gold bitters) to round out that flavor profile and curb the heat a bit.

This earned Jeff two points, while Phil took the third point of the round.

Round 3

After round two, Phil and Jeff were tied for the lead with two points apiece, and Andrew and Sam were close behind, each with one point. And that meant that anybody could still win with a strong enough showing in round 3.

The secret ingredient for this final round was salt with grasshoppers and agave worms (or “Sal de Gusanos y Chapulin,” en espanol).

So first we had Paw-Paw vinegar (sour and fruity), then we had hot sauce (spicy and savory), and now we had this smoky, salty concoction with just a little “ick” factor courtesy of the worms and bugs.

During the final round, Samet drew from his experience working at a chocolate-driven restaurant to create a salted-chocolate old fashioned, which drew some nice attention from the judges. Jeff broke out the Cynar to try and offset that funky salt with some of bitterness and herbal sweetness. Meanwhile, Sam whipped up a tequila-driven negroni variation, and phil broke out the egg whites and produced a gin sour with a salted rim.

And the Winner Is…

In the end, it wasn’t flashiness that won the day. It wasn’t smoke. And it wasn’t complexity.

It was consistency.

By scoring a point in each of the three rounds, Phil Duong of AhSo in Brambleton, creator of that amazing gin sour, took home the win for himself and his bar.

Takeaways

If you go back and pay close attention to the judges’ comments throughout, a couple things are pretty clear.

One is that they took all these cocktails seriously, and they weren’t shy about offering advice when they thought something could be improved upon. A perfect example is when Chad commented on the lack of aroma from Phil’s Chartreuse-soaked garnish in round one.

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But the other thing I noticed as I watched these judges is just how important individual preferences are at the end of the day. One judge commented on how the color of one of the cocktails reminded him of a lamp from his childhood. Another admitted his love of egg-white sours.

This is neither good nor bad. Because we all enter flavor evaluations with decades of experiential and preferential baggage, there’s no point trying to control for every tiny variable and be as objective as possible in a competition like this. That would suck all the fun out of it.

But just like a great song, or an amazing work of literature, the very best cocktails have the power to rise above those individual preferences and resonate on the palate no matter who happens to be tasting them.

I think that’s lesson we come to these types of competitions hoping to reaffirm.

Acknowledgments

Thanks for tuning in to this special episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast. We had a lot of fun putting this one together, and we’d like to start doing more interactive and in-depth pieces like this. So if you’re located in the Mid-Atlantic and you’ve got a cocktail-related event you’d like us to catalog, please drop us a line by emailing podcast@modernbarcart.com.

We’d like to thank Catoctin Creek Distilling Company (especially Denise Petty, Lauren Barrett, Chad Robinson, and Scott & Becky Harris) for being excellent partners and for hosting this terrific event. And we’d also like to applaud them for donating a portion of the proceeds to CORE (Children of Restaurant Employees), which is a charitable organization that lends a helping hand when children with service industry parents experience life-altering events.

If you’re looking to host an event like this, please consider following their lead and selecting a good cause that can benefit from a night of amazing cocktails.

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