You’ve probably seen different cooking contests on television: “Iron Chef,” “Chopped” and numerous others. Even here in Rochester, there have been cooking contests of sorts, from the Med-City BBQ to the March of Dimes Signature Chefs Auction and others.
Cocktails are starting to enter this arena as well. Rochester has had a few cocktail contests. Artini and Hiawatha Homes Festive Mixology are two recent local events.
Cocktail contests have risen to the national and international level as well, creating a whole new level of creativity in mixology. I recently had the pleasure of judging this years Bombay Sapphire/GQ magazine Most Imaginative Bartender for the Minneapolis region, which was held at the Le Meridien Chambers hotel in downtown Minneapolis.
Bombay Sapphire and GQ have been sponsoring this contest in Minneapolis for eight years now, and it has grown bigger and better every year. The premise behind the contest is to not only create cocktails that taste good, but are visually stimulating and creative using the bartender’s imagination.
Anything goes in this contest except open flames, much to the dismay of many competitors. Minneapolis has been represented well, with top-10 national finalists in 2009, 2011 and 2013.
Ten regional finalists are selected by submitting a cocktail recipe to a panel of judges. Judges select cocktails based on creativity, taste and use of the sponsor spirit, Bombay Sapphire. The finalists then gather to create sample cocktails for guests at a swanky cocktail party and also prepare full cocktails for a panel of judges.
Three judges are present during the technical phase of the contest, with a fourth judge acting as a blind judge. This year’s panel included last year’s regional winner, Rob Jones; Gary Hayward, Bombay Sapphire’s Brand Ambassador; Erik Anderson, Minneapolis chef extraordinaire; and me, as a blind judge.
Three judges were present during the making of the cocktails. Each competitor went behind a bar and created their cocktail from scratch for the judges.
The judges were looking at many things besides the taste and appearance of the cocktail. Presentation of the ingredients used in the cocktail, cleanliness, spillage, accurate use of tools, even how the contestants used or didn’t use their fingers.
Points were deducted for drops of cocktail or ingredients being spilled. Contestants also had a seven-minute time limit to create four cocktails, one for each judge. Points were deducted for going over time as well.
The blind judging component was very difficult. Each cocktail was presented as it was, with my focus on taste and presentation. Some of the criteria I had to look for were the use of Bombay Sapphire and how well it came through in the cocktail, taste, aroma, visual presentation and imagination in the use of ingredients to compliment the Bombay Sapphire. Cocktails with yogurt, sunflower seeds, grains of paradise and even curry were presented to me. Each was unique in flavor and creativity, but there could only be one winner.
This year’s regional winner was Tyler Kleinow, of Marvel Bar in Minneapolis. His cocktail, “London Bridge,” used some very imaginative techniques and ingredients. Kleinow has a background as a barista, so he understands coffee and flavors very well.
However, coffee, he felt, would be too overpowering of a flavor to go with the Bombay Sapphire, so he turned to a lesser known form of the coffee plant, the cascara, which is the dried husk of the coffee cherry. It has a fruity, woody, dusty flavor, which Kleinow felt would be a nice compliment to the Bombay Sapphire.
Licorice root water and lemon juice complimented the botanicals found in the gin. Kleinow also used a technique the bartenders at Marvel bar have been using, called hyper-dilution. Simply, it is the application of water above what would normally be found in a cocktail. Most cocktails will be 1/3 to 1/4 water dilution, but Marvel takes it even further, pushing the botanical flavors in different directions, creating a much more subtle flavor profile. No stirring or shaking is involved in making the cocktail either, making a neater, more efficient presentation.
Being the blind judge at this year’s Bombay Sapphire/GQ magazine Most Imaginative Bartender contest was an honor and a pleasure. It opened my eyes to looking at cocktails in a different manner, and to be more critical of them, while finding aspects that are positive at the same time.
If you have the opportunity to attend a cocktail competition, I highly recommend it, as you will gain a new appreciation for the creativity of craft cocktails and for the people that create them.