I love judging bartending contests. I love watching bartending contests. The showmanship and passion that is on display at these events -- Miss Speed Rack Houston, for example, or the recent Don Q Rum competition (both of which are sending female Houston bartenders to national championships in New York City) -- is inspiring to watch, even if I know that I'll never be able to make a decent martini for myself at home.
I even love judging bartending contests when fake tan-covered drunks in sparkly dragon shirts tell me I'm a shitty judge and spill their drinks on me, then offer to wipe me down with a food-crusted bar napkin. None of this takes away from the fun of hearing a bartender tell the story of how they created their cocktail, what inspired them to make a tamarind paste or an orange zest-and-turbinado-infused pink sea salt for the rim of the glass. It's just pure fun.
Last week I judged the Sugar Land Grand Food & Wine Affair's second annual On the Rocks bartending competition, and the five contestants seemed to share a hive mind as they went about showcasing their cocktail recipes. Ginger and/or ginger beer was in three of the drinks, while two used tamarind to great effect.
To my right, Top Chef and Iron Chef contestant (and three-time James Beard Award-nominated chef) Kelly Liken -- a fellow judge -- discussed how interesting it's been to watch cocktail practitioners develop into something that mirrors a chef's own repertoire. "They have immersion circulators and Vitamix blenders back there now," she laughed, as we were all dazzled by the extreme amounts of effort some of the bartenders had put into even their garnishes.
Unlike last year's competition, which saw the judges make the rounds to six different bartenders' tables, the bartenders were on a central stage this year: Each one had to head down to a brightly lit bar area when it was his or her turn in the competition. Miked up and on camera, they shook and poured drinks for a panel of five judges -- including last year's winner, Alba Huerta -- behind the bar at Blu in Sugar Land's Town Square. It was nerve-racking, and some shaky hands could be seen up close, but all five performed with aplomb as "Tipsy Texan" David Alan emceed the event.
I was hard on Double Cross Lounge's bartender, Trey Callahan, for making a drink that was too heavy on passion fruit puree and agave nectar. I wanted his Smoking Mule -- a twist on the Gin-Gin Mule -- to feature the Tesoro tequila more prominently, as well as the ginger beer and mescal that gave it its name. But my fellow judge Sarah Rufca of CultureMap reminded me that Callahan worked at a vodka-only bar, where it's typical to mask the flavor of the spirit rather than enhance it, and I softened a bit.
I was really wowed by former funeral home director and current Saint Arnold Brewery bartender Leslie Ross, who detailed her elaborate, spice-based cocktail: cayenne-infused ginger beer; tamarind chutney with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and allspice; that orange-and-turbinado sea salt rim; and a beautiful rosette made from orange peel. It all tied together beautifully and gave her cocktail a welcome kick that made it my favorite of the night.
Sheridan Fay from El Gran Malo won crowd favorite for her light, elegant cocktail of rose-infused simple syrup, Tesoro tequila and lemon juice, while Luis Villegas from Stella Sola broke out some eggnog-like rompope to create a cocktail that drew on his Catholic Mexican roots.
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It was Anvil's Matt Tanner who took home the $1,000 grand prize, however, with the simplest cocktail of the night. He'd made it up more or less on the fly, he shyly told me before the competition, but his procrastination paid off: a simple tamarind paste was blended with cucumber agua fresca -- both of which he'd made himself -- a little mint, a little lime juice and an ounce and a half of tequila. It was the kind of cocktail you'd want all summer long, served in a tall, chilly glass with a simple cucumber garnish.
If there's a cocktail god designing the great bar universe, Anvil will put Tanner's drink on its menu. Until then, I'm going to be haphazardly combining cucumber water and tamarind juice with tequila at home and calling it a win.