El Gran Malo Wins the LaB 5555 Mixology Contest at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

At first, I wasn't sure how a drink containing both gin and coconut milk was going to work out. The creamy base is terrific in curries, but in cocktails? Although I watched as 150 people lined up to taste the creation, I remained unconvinced of the Rangoon Social Club that bartenders Angel Belman and Matt Bradshaw from El Gran Malo had concocted for the LaB 5555 mixology competition last Friday night at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Unconvinced until I tried it.

"This is absolutely going to crush the competition," said a man next to me as he took a few sips and quickly deposited his voting token into El Gran Malo's box. And sure enough, his prediction proved true: Belman and Bradshaw took home the gold on Friday night, their Rangoon Social Club winning out over cocktails from Liberty Kitchen, Haven and Mongoose versus Cobra -- all of them featuring Tanqueray gin as the base spirit.

The blueberries in the Rangoon Social Club that Belman and Bradshaw made enhanced the sweeter juniper flavor of the Tanqueray, while the coconut milk served to soften it around the edges -- and I understood then why Bradshaw was so excited about using it. Before serving, he also offered an unconventional garnish: each cocktail was lightly spritzed with an atomizer containing either Angostura bitters or absinthe.

Across the entrance hall at the HMNS, bartender Ornella Ashcraft of Haven was using another pair of unconventional garnishes: dry ice to make her cocktails steam, and salt that she'd smoked herself back at the restaurant. Her drink, dubbed the "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town," also featured grapefruit and tarragon marmalade with tarragon she picked from Haven's own garden.

At the Mongoose versus Cobra booth, another creamy cocktail was being shaken up by bartender Theo Komisarjevsky. His light lavender drink, called the Carte Rouge, featured crème de cassis and Warninks, a rich liqueur that's the Dutch equivalent of eggnog. Both Komisarjevsky and Ashcraft's cocktails were complex, intriguing and undoubtedly delicious, but I did wonder whether I could drink more than one.

At Liberty Kitchen, however, Micah Szinyei had paired the Tanqueray gin with one of its best partners in crime: muddled cucumber. It's a natural combination, especially in the summer, and Szinyei had further enhanced his simple, straightforward Idylwild cocktail with pear juice and a slightly spicy rim that incorporated sugar, salt and cayenne pepper. It was easy to sip -- and easy to imagine sipping more than one, which is a good thing since Liberty Kitchen is adding the Idylwild to its permanent cocktail menu.

After the voting was over, guests at LaB 5555 -- pleasantly buzzed on free cocktails -- headed into the new paleontology hall at the HMNS or out to the courtyard where four food trucks stood at the ready to soak up the cocktails in their bellies. I opted for the Golden Doomba Special from The Rice Box for my own cocktail-soaking-up needs and, as usual, went away very happy.

See more photos from the LaB 5555 event in our slideshow.

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