Robby Cook will tell you he is first and foremost a musician. He just bartends to pay the bills.
It would seem Cook, a bartender at J. Black's Feel Good Kitchen and Louge, is pretty darn good at his hobby though. He was recently named the regional winner in the United States Bartenders' Guild's "Most Imaginative Bartender" competition, sponsored by Bombay Sapphire Gin. Cook and his winning cocktail, which he calls the Liguria Lemon Sour, will be traveling to Las Vegas this weekend to compete for the national title on September 8. The winner will be featured on the cover of GQ magazine's "Men of the Year" issue and will go on to compete in the global finals in Paris.
Cook isn't yet thinking that far ahead though. For now, he's just happy to show off his drink and talk about finding a happy medium between craft cocktails and shots.
This year marks the seventh annual Bombay Sapphire-sponsored bartending competition, though each year the title varies a little (think "Most Inspired Bartender" instead of "Most Imaginative"). Cook has entered a few times in the past, but this is the first time he's won, and he credits his awesome, homemade limoncello for helping him achieve glory.
Cook was inspired by the limoncello he tasted in Italy, particularly one type of limoncello that was packaged in old soda bottles and sold on the side of a country road by an enterprising elderly man. When Cook returned to the United States, he created his own limoncello recipe, which requires the zest of 17 large lemons and 190-proof grain alcohol.
Part of what set Cook's Liguria Lemon Sour apart from drinks made by his competitors is his use of homemade limoncello. The drink also incorporates an egg white, a few dashes of angostura bitters and coriander-flecked ice cubes, which tie in with the hint of coriander in Bombay Sapphire gin.
Here's a quick look at how it's made:
Unfortunately, the drink isn't readily available at J. Black's because it's a labor intensive process with ingredients (like Cook's limoncello) that aren't always kept at the bar. If you're feeling imaginative too though, here's Cook's recipe so you can try it at home:
Liguria Lemon Sour
2oz Bombay Sapphire Gin 1oz limoncello (house made) 1 bar spoon fresh squeezed lemon juice 1 egg white coriander ice cubes 2 dashes Angostura bitters lemon peel garnish
First, Cook toasts coriander seeds, gives them a good stir in water and freezes them into ice cubes. Then he mixes the gin, limoncello, lemon juice and egg white together and shakes the whole thing for about a minute to get the egg white nice and foamy. He pours this over the coriander ice cubes and garnishes with a few dashes of Angostura bitters and a curly lemon peel.
A musician at heart, Cook loves the stage, and he's looking forward to showing off his skills at the national competition.
"I don't care if I'm bartending or playing drums," he says. "I like being creative. I think that's what it comes down to. The competitions are fun and high energy and kind of stressful, but I like it."
Though Cook can clearly craft a mean cocktail, he says the majority of his work at J. Black's involves fast, high volume bartending. Nevertheless, Cook says he tries to make it a pleasant experience for everyone.
"I try to be attentive," he explains. "When I go out, I like getting good service and good drinks. If I have to make them fast, I try to make them consistent and fast."
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He's also hoping to broaden the horizons of J. Black's younger crowd who may not necessarily be into craft cocktails by experimenting with shots. Not just any shots, though. Craft shots. Like buttery nipples and star fuckers, only done well for a change.
"I've been working on making shots that are like craft drinks in shot form," Cook says. "So I make one that's gin, lemon, Peychaud's bitters and ginger beer with a basil leaf. That way you can actually get something that's good. It's fresh ingredients, and I feel like they're better for you...If a shot can be better for you."
Expect to see more craft shots when Cook returns (hopefully victorious) from Las Vegas. Even though he'll come back to Houston with his photo in a feature inGQ and new friendships with some of the best bartenders in the country, his next concern is football season.
"We're getting into the busy season," Cook explains, "so honestly, whether I win or lose, when I get back, it's all hunker down and work."