I spent several days before hand putting together a mixologist tool kit since it was required that I bring all my own tools and ingredients, except for the Clément Rhum products which would be provided. I bought a beautiful aluminum sided tool box from Home Depot for $20, with black painted sides and brushed aluminum edges. I filled it with cocktail shakers, juice squeezers and reamers, measuring spoons and cups, jigger measures, ice tongs, muddlers, bar knives and spoons, cutting boards, pouring spouts, strainers, and other utensils.
I was a little nervous since it has been quite a few years since I was last on the working side of a bar. By now it was the first week of May and clementines aren't really in season or available. I found a few cases at a local produce place but when I tried them I realized they were useless. They were overripe and getting nasty tasting.
Thankfully when I first wrote out the recipe I had anticipated this and included the possibility of other styles of oranges for use in the cocktail, including satsumas, mandarins, and tangerines. Tangerines have been plentiful and of great quality lately, especially the Honey strain, which is very sweet and rich flavored. It's one of my favorites, so I bought a few dozen, and the same in lemons.
I was all ready to compete in the semi-finals, when at the last minute I was asked to change bars for the judging. They had several out of towners competing and since I lived close by, out in the NYC suburbs, they asked if I could be flexible and switch to an earlier time, and at a different location. Of course I agreed and my new location was the Grace Restaurant and Bar in Tribeca.
Something I didn't mention before about this event is that it isn't just any old bartenders in this competition. There are some big names like The Cocktail Guru, Jonathan Pogash who is also the cocktail development director for The Campbell Apartment, World Bar, Bookmarks, and The Carnegie Club- all institutions of cocktail greatness; Philip Ward head bartender at the amazing cocktail bar Death & Co. in the East Village and formerly of the Flatiron Grill and the Pegu Club; and many more well known, creative, and brilliant cocktailians from great bars and restaurants. When I heard I was going up against some of the top mixologists in the world I was taken back a bit. I know how good Jonathan and Phil are from both reputation and from enjoying them mix me drinks upon occasion.
I got to Grace and started my prep and set-up. I felt really awkward since I had never been here before and the bar wasn't really set up for me to actually work. The back bar area was cluttered with all kinds of stuff for later in the day when it opened and I had to work around this. At least the judges couldn't see the hurdles and I tried to keep my cool. Just before I started mixing my drink I found out from the judges that I was the only person so far who had entered a Sour. Something that could break either way, hopefully in my favor.
I was up first of the people being judged at this location, which was good in that it got me busy instead of sitting around. So I got down to it and made the St. Clémentine Sour for the three judges to sample. While they did so I answered their questions and did my prepared spiel. I started out by giving them a handout with the recipe and some information about my cocktail, and Sours in general. I had prettied up the handout by using parchment paper and printed it in a deep, red/brown ink in an attractive font. On the back was a great color photo of various cocktails (the same photo used in the header for part one of this series.) I laminated the handout in my Xerox professional heat laminator, and trimmed it in my paper cutter, so it became a very nice flyer that was impervious to bar spills, and that the judges could take with them.
I wasn't really 'On' during the the competition, something that in some peoples opinions can make or break the taste of a cocktail. Actually I was about as off as I could be. Afterwards I even had a case of nerves, something that shocked me. I've done a lot of public speaking and been on the sharp end of the stick countless times without a bit of nerves. I guess this was because I was in someone else's bar, with no real prep time or familiarity with the set-up, and not a professional bartender. So that stressed me a bit. Add in the lack of properly supplied equipment and information and it really put me off my game.
The first thing that got to me was that they didn't have the right glasses for me. In the preliminary paperwork Clément Rhum specifically asked what type of glasses the drink should be served in. I thought this was so they could provide them, looking back that was a silly assumption on my part. I had requested Sours glasses which look like Champagne flutes that have been cut in half, and hold four ounces. Well, when I got to the venue they didn't have sours glasses or even any four ounce glasses of any type, something that surprised me. So I had to make do with six ounce Champagne flutes, not my desired choice. Of course I kicked myself mentally since I had been planning to buy sours glasses to bring with me just in case, but after going to several stores and not finding ones I liked, I kind of forgot to pursue it.
The second problem that came up was that I had asked a few days earlier how many judges there were supposed to be. This is so that I would have the recipe set to pour perfect drinks, and had been told that there were two judges. Well, as I mentioned earlier there were actually three people who showed up, one more than I had been told to expect. The recipe I devised makes exactly eight ounces after shaking on ice, planned out at two nice, but not overwhelming portions. It was too late to make any changes and I didn't have the equipment to make larger batches anyway. I kicked myself again because I had several versions of the recipe printed out at home for differing amounts, and I knew they were just sitting on my desk, uselessly.
The third problem I ran into was that I didn't have time or the facilities to chill the glasses, so the drinks were poured into unfrosted glasses (actually warm glasses.) This wasn't a total screw-up since the drink is very well shaken and quite cold. BUT, what should have been two- four ounce cocktails poured attractively to the rim of 4 ounce Sours glasses, ended up being three 2.6 ounce pours barely half filling six ounce Champagne flutes. By this time my mind was getting a bit sore from all the kicking.
Fourth, and finally, with all the folderol with serving half full glasses I couldn't add the garnish of tangerine and lemon zest floated on top of the drink. So while the drink itself may have been great, the presentation was completely off. This is a major error in a competition like this where presentation can be almost as important as the taste. I knew immediately that making it to the finals was all up to the quality of my drink. The question is: Would my St. Clémentine Sour be good enough? Oh my aching head!
To Be Continued...
An Introduction to the Sours Family
According to Gary Regan in his fantastic book The Joy of Mixology, there are five members in the family of cocktails called Sours. Sours, International Sours, New Orleans Sours, Sparkling Sours, and Squirrel Sours.
Sours: A base spirit, lemon or lime juice, and a non-alcoholic sweetening agent such as simple syrup, grenadine, or pineapple juice. If the base of a sour is a liqueur, no additional sweetening agent is required. Examples of Sours are the Whiskey Sour, Amaretto Sour, Daiquiri, Jack Rose, Fish House Cocktail, Ward Eight, and the Lemon Drop.
International Sours: A base spirit, lemon or lime juice, and sweetened by a liqueur, another fruit juice, or both. Examples of International Sours are the Aviation Cocktail, Bistro Sidecar, Paradise Cocktail, and the Stiletto Cocktail.
New Orleans Sours: A base spirit, lemon or lime juice, and triple sec or another orange-flavored liqueur, such as curaçao. Examples of New Orleans Sours are the Beachcomber Cocktail, Between the Sheets, Cosmopolitan, Margarita, Pegu Club Cocktail, and the Sidecar.
Sparkling Sours: A base spirit, lemon or lime juice, a sweetening agent, and a carbonated beverage. Examples of Sparkling Sours are the Ramos Gin Fizz, Long Island Iced Tea, Tom Collins, and the Singapore Sling No.'s 1 & 2.
Squirrel Sours: A base spirit, lemon or lime juice, and crème de noyau or another nut-flavored liqueur. Examples of Squirrel Sours are the British Squirrel, Russian Squirrel, Kentucky Squirrel, and the Caribbean Squirrel.