Thirteen of New York's best bartenders. One liquor brand. A room full of cheering fans with their iPhones set to Instagram. Over the weekend, we attended the USBG (United States Bartenders Guild) Legacy Cocktail Showcase, a Bacardi battle royale held at the posh Stone Rose Lounge. Two winners moved on to the national championship in Miami. We, however, were more interested in discovering what NYC's finest were concocting behind the bar.
Danilo Bozovic, who works weekends at Tribeca's Macao Trading Company, has been experimenting with something most of us haven't had since we were kids: root beer.
"I really haven't seen people use it that much," said Bozovic, clad in suspenders and a neatly trimmed mustache. "This root beer that I use is sweet, but not as sweet as the sugary, commercial root beers, so it gives you room to play with other flavors and aromas."
During the competition he used it to complement Bacardi Superior, honey-ginger syrup, lime juice, hibiscus-infused absinthe and Angostura bitters in something that he called the "Dona Loren." The question is whether or not it can replace Mexican Coke as the au courant carbonated beverage in today's trendier cocktail joints.
Igor Zukowiec of Bar 44, whose cocktail "Levitation" was inspired by a walk around Amsterdam (draw your own conclusions), is hoping to take bee pollen further than it has ever gone before by using it as a base instead of just a garnish.Other bartenders are experimenting with tea. Josh Perez of the East Village's The Third Man and the Momofuku-affiliated Booker & Dax added a two-inch by two-inch green tea ice cube to his "L'Espiégle Sour."
"I used an ice cube because I really wanted to extract the bitterness of the green tea," said Perez. "That way you let the flavor build with the dilution instead of having the drink just get watered down."
Garrett Richard of Brooklyn's Prime Meats is similarly enamored with tea, especially the ones coming out of the American Tea Room in Beverly Hills.
"Right now everyone is bitters-crazy, but tea adds complexity in another way that's maybe a little more approachable to people," said Richard, who took a job at Graydon Carter's Monkey Room after leaving his job at NPR. "You might not drink a glass of bitters, but everyone's enjoyed a nice glass of tea."
The highlight of the night was the impassioned speech from Employees Only's Steve Schneider, set to the music of a star-spangled violinist and punctuated by a man who blew fire out of his saxophone. Schneider told the tale of how he almost died of a head injury while serving in the Marine Corps and took up bartending after his career in the military ended. Despite the fact that in 2011 he and his Employees Only team won Tale of the Cocktail's coveted Word's Best Cocktail Bar award, he still likes to keep things simple.
"Parks and Recreation did a great show last week with a cocktail that came as a lotion," he said. "That kind of stuff is fun, but I'm still an everyday, grind-it-out bartender, so I like the ingredients that don't make the drinks a big project for the person drinking it."
Plenty of the competitors were quick to point to their blue-collar sensibilities. Public's David Roth (sorry Van Halen fans, no relation) loves to wind down on his days off with a shot-and-beer combo at Mother's Ruin in Nolita. Jan Warren from Long Island City's Dutch Kills co-hosts the web show Animals Eating Animals, in which he explores the city looking for meaty treasures like sweetbread tacos and pig's face.
Still, there's no denying that these guys spend a lot of mental energy dreaming up new ways to get you drunk. Raphael Reyes of the Experimental Cocktail Club explains his role as something of a chef: "I like to cook a lot and I have worked with a lot of great chefs, so I've taken that mentality, building cocktails like a plate, so you need aroma, texture, mouth-feel. You build it the same way you would build a dish."
Alas, his "El Conquistador" did not win the competition. At the end of the night two winners were named: Milos Zica of Employees Only and Japanese legend, Takeshi Uzuka, who's worked at the Experimental Cocktail Club, among other places. Zica's winning cocktail was the "Star Superior" (Bacardi Superior, chamomile syrup, lemon juice, Peychaud's bitters, ginger, egg whites, and star anise), a drink that the Serbian-native says was inspired the family Christmases of his youth. His message to the kids? "Just keep it real and believe in yourself. If you make a cocktail with salmon-infused vodka and believe it will taste good, it will!" We hope that's being printed on inspirational posters as we speak.
The other winner, Uzuka, didn't speak much English, which meant his cocktail, the "Room No. 202" (Bacardi Superior, green tea, Velvet Falernum liqueur, freshly squeezed lime, green chartreuse, and egg whites), had to speak for itself.
—Keith Wagstaff is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @kwagstaff.