Judging a cocktail contest is pretty high on the list of "I can do that" jobs, right up there with Zamboni driver and video game tester. So when Greg Lindgren, co-owner of Rye in San Francisco, invited me to be one of four judges for the bar's monthly cocktail contest, what was my response? See above.
The contests are quite a scene for the city's big names in mixmastery. They're always held on Monday nights, when many top bartenders have the night off. And they're open to the public. (The next is Feb. 5 at Rye; 688 Geary St.)
One of my fellow judges, Nish Nadaraja, director of marketing for Yelp, described his credentials as being "the end user" of cocktails. The other two judges, Kim Beto and David Nepove, work for the large liquor distributor Southern Wine & Spirits. Beto is more of a wine guy, as am I, but Nepove, an accomplished mixologist who calls himself "Mr. Mojito," quickly established himself as the lead fiddle in our quartet -- a top-dog assertion among equals who would ultimately decide the winner.
We were seated at a table behind the bar so we couldn't see which bartenders were working, in order to eliminate personal bias. Lindgren gave us score sheets with five categories: drink name; appearance/presentation; aroma/taste; balance/drinkability; and creativity/utility.
The dozen competing bartenders brought and used all types of unexpected ingredients, from muddled gooseberry to edible flowers. The one ingredient everyone had to use was Aperol, a low-alcohol (11 percent), slightly bitter aperitif similar to Campari, though sweeter. Like Campari, Aperol has a variety of components, including bitter orange and rhubarb. The former inspired most mixologists to include citrus products, but only one person picked up on the rhubarb.
The drinks came out one at a time. Lindgren announced the name of each and told us the ingredients. Then we spent a few minutes tasting and writing notes.
When we didn't like a drink, we were harsh, and got harsher as we got a little Aperol (not to mention vodka, gin and Tequila) in us. When we liked a cocktail -- and we liked about half -- we struggled to decide just how much we liked it, and in which category. Was that long orangey finish part of the aroma/taste or the balance/drinkability?
Our favorite of the first six drinks was the Veneto's Vice, a concoction of Aperol, blood orange juice, muddled kumquat, lemon juice, Belvedere vodka and a Prosecco float. Tart initially, it subsided into a balanced mix of citrusy flavors.
Veneto's Vice held the lead until we got back-to-back drinks that outshined everything else: the Valentino and the Aperol Milkshake.
Boy, were they different. The Valentino was extremely complex (check out the recipe). The Aperol Milkshake was the simplest drink of the night.
We liked both and started a debate that continued throughout the contest. What's better: an impressive drink made solely for competition that may never be re-created, or something daringly creative, yet easy for anyone to make?
When we'd had the last drink, Nepove insisted we add up our scores to see which drink got the most points. Beto had the two stars scored equally. Nadaraja agreed with me that the milkshake was the most memorable; we picked it first. But Nepove -- who argued all along for the Valentino -- gave the milkshake a score low enough to drop it into second.
Lindgren came over to see what we'd picked. We started to tell him the scores, but he told us that didn't matter; all we had to do was pick a first, second and third, scores be damned.
Miscarriage of justice! But it was too late to argue, as Lindgren was announcing the winners.
Carlos Yturria of Range restaurant made the Veneto's Vice, which finished third. Todd Smith of Bourbon & Branch made the Aperol Milkshake.
Then I met Victoria Damato-Moran, who made the winning Valentino. She was screaming with joy.
"I needed this," she said, her face glowing with pride.
Turns out she's between jobs. The daughter of a longtime bartender, she worked at Tony Nik's in North Beach for years before leaving early last year to be a restaurant bar manager. Then, she says, she was injured in a traffic accident and went on disability for a few months. When she was ready to go back to work, she was told by the restaurant they didn't have enough money to pay her.
Damato-Moran says she spent two days developing the Valentino, but only finalized it at the last minute.
"About two hours before I left for the contest, I decided, 'This needs a change,' " she says. "It was too thick, because of the syrup. I ran down to the store and got the soda. I said, 'That's it!' "
Damato-Moran hopes the small amount of notice from winning the contest will help her get a new job. Now I'm glad I didn't argue with Nepove.
But I did drop by Bourbon & Branch to see Smith.
"When I do contests, I always try to do something a little odd, that not many people would think of," Smith says. "I like the Rye contest because it's a social gathering of a lot of bartenders. I rarely win. But that's OK. "
I asked him for an Aperol Milkshake. It's not on the menu, but Smith can quickly whip one up if you ask. It's worth doing, but judge for yourself. You can do that.
Makes 1 drink
Prepare this drink, created by created by Victoria Damato-Moran, when rhubarb is in season.
1 ounce Aperol
1 ounce reposado Tequila
1 ounce rhubarb juice (see Note)
1/2 ounce Agave Pomegranate Ginger Syrup (see recipe)
3 ounces grapefruit juice (Ruby Red or Texas)
1 fresh lime
Splash club soda
Grapefruit and lime garnish
Instructions: Pour the Aperol, Tequila, rhubarb juice, Agave-Pomegranate-Ginger syrup and grapefruit juice into a chilled tumbler. Shake and strain over ice into a chilled double-rocks glass (8 to 9 ounces). Add a slight squeeze of fresh lime juice. Top with a splash of club soda.
Note: To make rhubarb juice, cut fresh rhubarb into chunks, parboil, then steam, until the rhubarb is tender. Extract the juice by mashing the pulp through a fine-mesh sieve.
Agave Pomegranate Ginger Syrup
2 cups agave nectar
1 cup pomegranate juice
1 large finger of ginger, sliced
Instructions: Pour agave nectar and pomegranate juice into a pot. Add ginger. Bring to a boil. Turn off and let steep until cool. Remove the ginger and store in a glass bottle in the refrigerator.
Makes 1 drink
Created by Todd Smith of Bourbon & Branch.
2 ounces Aperol
2 ounces milk
1 ounce orange juice
Dash of simple syrup
Combine Aperol, milk, orange juice and simple syrup in mixing cup with ice and shake. Pour into tall glass with ice. Finish with soda. Garnish with an orange slice.