The Weird, Wonderful World of Competitive Mixology

By / Photography By Robin Wolf | September 26, 2017
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I’m standing behind a bar 300 miles from home. A roomful of strangers is cheering me on, a blue and orange lightning bolt emblazoned across my face. War paint. “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie bolsters me as I deftly measure, mix and shake: spirits, drops, powders, eggs and a little magic. Alchemy and artistry in one, until I realize … I’ve forgotten my garnish stencil. the stencil that I painstakingly refined after several failed attempts: the size, the shape, the material. Hours of my life up in smoke as I realize my culinary glitter garnish will just have to stand on its own without the stencil. I suck it up, strain my cocktails and, after a flourish of freehand glitter, it’s judgement time.

 Welcome to the world of competitive mixology.

With around eight years of bar work under my belt, I have been competing in cocktail competitions in some fashion for the last three. Recently I have entered a new arena: internationally sponsored cocktail competitions. the stakes are higher, the rewards greater. 

The competition I detailed above was for the “American Brandy Copper and Kings,” and the challenge was to create a cocktail inspired by a song—hence the Bowie makeup and crazy garnish. It was one of the most fun competitions I have done so far, an intersection of libations and music, two of my favorite things. I ended up taking second in this particular competition. Would my stencil have put me over the top? I’ll never know.

Another standout for me was a local Central Coast Competition: “The Chemistry of Cocktails.” Sponsored by the Exploration Station in Grover Beach, this one asked competitors to “get your science on” and create something to impress and delight while focusing on physics, chemistry and all of the other classes I should have paid more attention to in school. Going head to head with other local mixologists, several of whom were friends, I decided that smoke was my element of choice. My entry was a bourbon, apple and rosemary cocktail smoked three ways: barrel-aged in charred oak, mixed with charred cedar bitters and,  nally, served with a smoke- lled ice sphere that the judges broke open with a hammer, spilling the smoke over the top of the cocktail. Flashy? Absolutely. We drink with our eyes first, after all. Delicious as well? Apparently so. I won that day. I think Bill Nye would be proud.

Another wonderful opportunity from this year was Altos Tequila’s Tahona Society Cocktail Competition. Competitors were asked to submit a recipe online, judges selected worthy creations to try and the best of the best were invited to three regional seminars based on their location. I spent a day in Los Angeles with 24 other mixologists from the Western U.S., where we were treated to guest lectures on the history of tequila production in Mexico, maintaining authentic practices and cultural ties, and sustainability in our industry. I came away with a  re in my belly to reduce waste and a much deeper appreciation for the role of tequila production on the economy of many small villages. Definitely another win.

A wonderful juxtaposition to the rustic, earth-driven focus of the Tahona Society was the Bombay Sapphire–sponsored competition. Very structured, very formal, this challenge was to use Bombay Sapphire gin in such a way as to garner the title of “Most Imaginative Bartender.” Invited to show my stuff in San Francisco, I hauled my kit up to the Bay Area and was simply astounded by the level of creativity of these bartenders. One used oysters and sea foam, another presented a libation topped with blue flames. I remain thoroughly amazed by that blue flame to this day. I can find no evidence of how it is possible. And the mustaches. San Francisco has some serious mustache game.

Between travels, the time spent developing and submitting entries and the cost of components, I am often asked what I get out of competitive mixology.  e answer is … a lot. I have won cash, travel and some amazing bottles of booze. I have enjoyed opportunities and forged friendships with some incredible industry professionals from around the world. I have learned more about the art of the cocktail than I ever thought possible. My favorite thing about cocktails has always been the moments they help create, the stories they tell and the people they bring together. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to solve the mystery of that blue flame…

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