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Monday, August 27, 2007

The MixMaster's Cup

Last weekend we attended the Great American Distillers Festival in Portland, which hosted the MixMaster’s Cup, a gathering of 12 talented bartenders from some of the best bars in Portland. Siobhan, Imbibe’s circulation manager, stepped up to emcee the competition, and I was lucky enough to be a judge along with Lucy Brennan, owner of Mint/820; Tim Davey of Uptown Liquor; and Anne Marie DiStefano, bar and nightlife writer for The Portland Tribune.


We had a fantastic field of competitors, which made the judging incredibly enjoyable. The format was such that each competitor was pre-assigned a spirit category, and they had to use that spirit with any other ingredients to make one cocktail for each judge within 15 minutes. The categories were rum, gin, brandy, vodka, flavored vodka and whiskey, and the designated spirits had to be chosen from those being exhibited at the festival.

The competitors were all very unique in their styles and processes. Kelley Swenson of Ten 01 started things off in perfect Portland style with his “Flaming Liberal,” a lovely blend of rum, Cointreau, orange bitters, fresh lime and a dash of pastis served up in a cocktail glass with a sprig of dried lavender. This drink definitely got things off to a great start. Sarah Lightner of Acadia also took on rum and combined the sweetness of the spirit with the spice of a hot pepper garnish in her "Green Goddess" cocktail.

Next came gin, and Dave Shenaut got things going with a drink that sounds simple, a gin and tonic, but his delicious homemade tonic made the drink much more memorable than the average G&T. Dave works at Teardrop Lounge, a new bar in Portland with a ton of buzz because not only are they making incredible cocktails, but they're making a lot of their ingredients from scratch—tonic, falernum, bitters and more. Also in the gin category was Jason Smith of The Gilt Club. His "Rosemary's Baby" combined gin, grapefruit juice and rosemary served up in a cocktail glass with a grapefruit-infused salt and pepper rim and a sprig of rosemary. And wrapping up the gin round was Flip Romero of Portland’s famed Saucebox. Flip made a “Q Bee” with a pastis rinse, gin and a homemade thyme, ginger and honey tea.

Things got a little molecular in the vodka category with Daniel Stern of Fenouil making one of his famous cloud garnishes. His drink was called a “Reconstructed Zen Cosmo.” The liquid was vodka, fresh lime juice and simple syrup. Then Daniel created cranberry and citrus foams that he split and floated on top of the liquid. Kelly Stewart of the Purple Tooth Lounge wrapped up the vodka category with a Black Widow, a blend of Hot Monkey Vodka, Kahlua, Chambord, Godiva liqueur, and vanilla Stoli. For anyone who hasn’t tried Hot Monkey, it’s a seriously spicy vodka, so a little goes a long way.

Gretchen Wilcox of one of Portland’s best bars and restaurants, Park Kitchen, was Saturday’s final competitor, and she gave a great performance. Gretchen is incredibly knowledgeable and at ease in front of an audience. She crafted a "Portland Streetcar," a blend of Clear Creek’s Doug Fir eau de vie, lemon verbena, rosemary, Cointreau, fresh lemon juice and orange bitters. Like most of Park Kitchen’s cocktails, the Streetcar was crisp and fresh—perfect for a summer day in Portland.

Tim sizes up the Monkey on My Back.
On Sunday we had two more categories to go before the finals, flavored vodka and whiskey. Langdon Peale of Jake’s got us off to a good start with his “Monkey on My Back” cocktail, which brought back Hot Monkey Vodka. I was a little worried that the vodka might overwhelm, but Langdon did a nice job of creating a balanced drink. The vodka was combined with pineapple-infused rum, blood orange bitters, falernum, orange juice, lemon juice and lime juice. He did a pretty sugared rim on his fluted glasses and threw on a plastic monkey for good measure. (Tim Davey sizes up the "Monkey" in the righthand photo.)


Not to be outdone, Suzanne Allard (pictured above) from Castagna closed flavored vodka with her "Mrs. McIntyre," which married rose vodka with non-flavored vodka, a raspberry/peach puree and lemon juice. This incredibly balanced and refined cocktail was served up in beautiful vintage glasses with a fresh raspberry garnish. Suzanne’s enthusiasm and affable personality made her a lot of fun to watch, and her cocktail was a joy to drink.


Finally, came the whiskey category with Lance Mayhew (pictured above) of Meriwether's and Charlie Hodge of Clyde Common. Of all the categories, this one probably offered the fewest options—no bourbons, for example. But with these guys, you’d never have known the spirit options were limited. Lance gave a very well-informed presentation, and he put a ton of work into his drink. Called “The Raena Marie” (after his wife), he combined Snake River Stampede Whiskey with homemade grapefruit bitters, turbinado syrup, smoked lemon juice (he actually smoked lemons!) and chamomile liqueur. He then used dried and powdered Licor 43 to rim his cocktail glasses. If we could give individual prizes for preparation, Lance would have gotten one for sure. Maybe we can get him to divulge recipes for some of those intriguing ingredients….


Charlie Hodge took us home with his “Oxbow,” a complete departure from any other cocktail in the competition. Like Lance, Charlie chose the Snake River whiskey for his base to which he added a condensed milk/vanilla combo and cream. He served it up in glasses rimmed with vanilla paste and finely ground smoked-salt. His drink was surprisingly balanced given the unexpected combination of salt and milk, and Charlie’s stage presence is fantastic—lots of dual-action shaking going on and a fun, laid-back, yet creative approach to drink-making.

Onto the finals! The format of the final round was a la Iron Chef, with the competitors getting a mystery ingredient unveiled to them on the spot. The secret ingredient was G Joy sake, as well as fresh blackberries that had to be used somehow as a garnish but could also be incorporated into the cocktail. Each finalist had 15 minutes to create and execute a cocktail on the fly, and they were all great!

The finalists competed one by one, and Suzanne dove in first with her “Whoop, There It Is,” a delicious combo of sake, muddled blackberries, homemade ginger syrup, lemon juice and vodka served up in a cocktail glass with a fresh blackberry. Suzanne has a very intuitive approach to drink-making, and she seemed to know immediately what flavors she needed to put together—this drink could easily go onto Castagna’s menu today.



Kelley (pictured above) came out second, and he was much more experimental, grabbing various spirits, trying out different flavor combinations, scrapping his concoctions and starting from scratch. In the end, he settled on a simple but elegant blend of sake, gin and peach bitters served up in a cocktail glass with a speared berry, and he finished with just seconds to go.


Charlie closed the finals with more experimentation and testing. He’s so much fun to watch because he’s not afraid to get messy, and he brought his same cool and collected demeanor to the finals. His drink combined sake with huckleberry liqueur, lemon juice, muddled blackberry and maraschino liqueur served over ice, topped with tonic water and garnished with lime zest and a dollop of muddled blackberry.

All three finalists were so impressive, especially given the fact that they had no idea what they’d be making beforehand, but Suzanne took home first place for her “Whoop” creation. Her completely overjoyed reaction to winning was priceless and so much fun to watch. Behind Suzanne, Charlie won second place and Kelley won third. Big congrats to everyone who competed! —Karen Foley

9 comments:

jmk said...

That looks like so much fun! I'm sorry I live too far to have checked it out. But thanks for the summary.

nola said...

I would love to see Suzanne's complete sake drink recipe if you have it; sounds great.

Imbibe Magazine said...

Here's Suzanne's sake recipe:

Eight blackberries muddled
2 oz. vodka
1 1/2 oz. G Joy sake
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. ginger syrup (recipe follows)

Shake ingredients with ice, not too vigorously, and serve up with a blackberry dropped in the cocktail glass. Serves 2.

HOMEMADE GINGER SYRUP
1 lb. ginger, sliced, but not peeled
7 cups water
2-2 1/4 cups sugar

Boil ginger until water is reduced by half. Strain (be careful!) when cooled but still warm enough to add sugar. Add 2-2 1/4 cups of sugar depending on the strength of the ginger. Keeps well for a month in the fridge.

suzanne said...

My good friend said, "At least you didn't call it 'Who let the dogs out'...". Nervousness, and a healthy amount of tasting brings out the worst in me.
Thanks again to everyone for a great competition. The Mrs. McIntyre recipe coming soon!

imbibemagazine said...

Congrats, Suzanne—the competition was a lot of fun, and your reaction to winning was fantastic! -karen

Blair said...

It was so great to see a live mix event. I really enjoyed watching the competitors at their craft, and being able to take some time to talk through the drinks and the making of them.

Sad I couldn't make it back Sunday, hope to see it again next year!

Geoff said...

This looks like a great time. Question: What is the process for the smoked lemon juice?

lance said...

Smoked Lemon Juice (approximate yield is 750 ml)

20 lemons (halved)
olive oil

1) brush lemon halves with a light coating of olive oil
2) over a mesquite grill, place lemons cut side down on grill, cover and cook for approximately 5-6 minutes, until lemons become soft and grill lines appear.
3) remove lemons from grill, let cool for 20 minutes (unless you'd like to blister your fingers) and juice them. Reserve 20 spent lemon halves after juicing (I looked for those that had the most obvious amount of smoke)
4) Zest the 20 lemon halves, and add the lemon zest to the juice.
5) cover the juice and refrigerate for 24 hours to allow the flavors to marry.
6) After 24 hours, strain the juice through a strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth. This step may be necessary to repeat.
7) Next, line a strainer with an unbleached coffee filter and strain the lemon juice again to remove the smaller particles (the lemon juice still had little bit of char when it went through the cheesecloth, and this resolved this issue).
8) Bottle the smoked lemon juice and store under refrigeration until needed.

Note- After the 24hr cold extraction, the color of the lemon juice changed perceptibly. It went from the more typical yellow/green color of fresh juice to more of a yellow/brown from contact with the more charred bits of the lemon.

geoff said...

Thanks. Look forward to trying this.