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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Recap: Grand Marnier and Navan 2009 Mixology Summit

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Grand Marnier and Navan 2009 Mixology Summit, held in Vail April 5–7. This annual event has become a favorite among bartenders who get to attend, a chance to talk shop with some of the best and brightest in their field. Unlike many such events, the Summit isn’t a competition—rather, the competition happens beforehand, when the 100 attendees are selected out of some 800 applicants who each entered two original cocktail recipes featuring Grand Marnier and/or Navan. Each bartender then got to make his or her recipes during a consulting lab at the summit, and there was plenty of talent and creativity on display.

The prize for Most Creative Garnish has to go to Surapong Sawadviphachai of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Washington, D.C. for a concoction of muddled ginger and lemongrass, along with lychee puree, lime juice, sake and Grand Marnier graced with a festive little fish carved out of a carrot round, with a clove pierced through to make an eye and a curve of lime peel serving as its dorsal fin. Meanwhile, Frankie Solarik of Toronto’s recently opened BarChef showed off his bar’s signature drink, which he calls a Smoked Manhattan. We could quibble with the drink’s name (it’s served on the rocks, and includes lemon juice, after all), but there was no denying its craftsmanship.

The consulting room filled with curious onlookers as word spread that Solarik’s drink was going to involve setting things on fire. “I hope we don’t set off the smoke alarm,” was all Solarik said as he began making the drink, which includes rye whiskey, Navan, lemon juice, housemade cherry-vanilla bitters and hickory-smoked syrup. Then came the finale: He threw a generous handful of hickory chips and a vanilla pod into a sauté pan and used a blowtorch to set them on fire, the same technique he uses at his bar. “Visually, it’s quite the show,” he commented mildly in what might have been the summit’s biggest understatement. When the chips were good and smoky, he poured them onto a raised glass stand, nestled the drink into the middle of them, and covered the whole thing with a glass dome to allow the smoke to infuse the drink. The result was a complex melding of sweet and smoky, tart and rich. Miraculously, the fire alarm remained untripped.

There were quieter triumphs, as well. I loved Jon Arroyo’s two entries. His “Grandma Deconstructed”—with Grand Marnier, absinthe, maraschino liqueur and bitters, served neat in a rocks glass with a smacked mint leaf—was simple, but wonderfully balanced and nuanced, while his “Grandma’s Blackberry Sour” was a stunner, emerging from the mixing glass a beautiful magenta.

At breakfast one morning, I got a chance to chat privately with Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, the fourth generation of her family to work in its wine and liqueur business. She’s played a vital role in the family business since the 1990s, when she convinced her relatives to buy vineyards in what was then still an emerging winemaking region: Chile. “The Chilean people went to Bordeaux in the 1860s and brought back vines, and that was just before the crisis of phylloxera,” she explained. “And as phylloxera never got to Chile, it’s like you have a little bit of France in Chile, with vines that you cannot find anymore today in France.”

Marnier Lapostolle, who lives in Switzerland most of the time but oversees Grand Marnier’s operations in North America as well as the company’s Lapostolle wine label, has continued to be the family’s innovator. She’s a driving force behind the summit, which she sees as a way to create dialog between the company and bartenders. For instance, feedback from bartenders at last year’s summit went into the company’s changing the formula for its newly created vanilla liqueur, Navan, making it less sweet and more mixable. (Interesting side note: The Marnier Lapostolle family came up with the idea for Navan while chatting in the family botanical gardens in France, Les Cèdres, which is home to some 15,000 species of plants. “We started to say, ‘What could we find that’s really interesting?’ ” Marnier Lapostolle said. “And since we had this beautiful garden, and this vanilla coming from the orchids had this really interesting flavor, that’s how we started.”)

This year’s summit showed that today’s bartenders are ready to keep pushing the creative envelope. As one of the summit organizers Steve Olson said during his keynote speech, “Five years ago, we wouldn’t have anyone using sherry in a cocktail; this year we had bunches who did.”

Sherry was the least of it—I saw everything from edible cocktails to elaborate stencils that could be sprayed onto the tops of foamed cocktails with bitters. A team of top bartenders—including the likes of Contemporary Cocktails’ Aisha Sharpe, Tippling Brothers’ Tad Carducci and Leo (son of Dale) DeGroff—stirred and shook innovative cocktails for the thirsty throng, and you couldn’t walk three paces without overhearing a conversation about hazelnut infusions or passionfruit foam. We can’t wait to see what all this creative collaboration will produce, and we look forward to checking out next year’s gathering.

As a last note, if you’re interested in trying out some of the summit’s cocktail recipes, they’re all available in a free downloadable iPhone app—the name is GM Cocktails. For those living an iPhone-free existence, here’s a sample:

Grandma's Blackberry Sour
3 blackberries
¾ oz. fresh lemon juice
1 oz. simple syrup
2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters
1 ½ oz. Grand Marnier
¾ oz. rye whiskey (Arroyo uses Rittenhouse)
1 egg white
Ice cubes
Tools: muddler, shaker, fine-mesh strainer
Glass: Old Fashioned
Garnish: blackberry and half a lemon or orange wheel

Muddle blackberries, lemon juice, simple syrup and bitters in a mixing glass. Add Grand Marnier, rye and egg white. Shake vigorously with ice and fine-strain into an ice-filled glass. Garnish.

Jon Arroyo, Founding Farmers, Washington, D.C.

—Hannah Feldman