By the time the judges pulled up to last night's Where Y'at Margarita Mixoff finals, we were past the "too sweet/too sour/too weird" part of the contest. (That was settled a few weeks ago, when a boozy limo ride took us through the semi-finals, tasting wild varieties of margaritas at each stop.)
At the hyper-crowded upper deck at Manning's, we met with three top-notch cocktails, made by bartenders I adore: Michael Glassberg, Steve Yamada and Lauren Holton. A trip to Las Vegas was on the line. Hundreds of people, fueled by free 'ritas, were at our backs. We'd better choose well.
I was sitting with seasoned cocktail pros - Tales of the Cocktail co-founder Ann Tuennerman, Museum of the American Cocktail co-founder Chris McMillian, and Sarah Gibbons from Disaronno. Here, our (anonymous) whisperings from the judges' table:
How marketable is it? If I'm a bar owner, I need to know your drink will sell, that I can train bar staff to make it fast and consistently well, and that the ingredients won't cost too much or swing out of season. Mixoff winner Lauren's margarita fit the bill: beside the liquors and lime, it calls only for red grapefruit juice and ginger simple syrup - approachable and refreshing.
Taste. We should want to finish your drink as a judge, then buy it at your bar as a customer. It should be delicious.
Think through your drink's life. What will it taste like after sitting on the judges' table for five or 10 minutes? Often we'll go back through the drinks as we jot down the final scores.
Classic drink competitions are tougher. We're not only looking for the familiar - in this case, roughly a 2:1:1 ratio of tequila, orange liqueur and citrus juice - but we want to be dazzled (Steve's muddled jalapeños and top layer of smoky barbecue bitters did the trick).
Charisma matters. If you're relaxed on stage, have a sense of humor or guide us through your drink-making process, we'll respond to that. Bartending is a social business. We want to feel comfortable at your bar.
So do looks. The appearance of your drink, that is. Integrate your garnishes with the cocktail (Michael's muddled cilantro - and cilantro garnish - picked up the tequila's vegetal notes beautifully), and be sure that it's right-sized for the glass.
Quality ingredients. The three finalists led their cocktails with the contest's host brands, Cazadores and Cointreau. Their syrups were handmade, juices just-squeezed, garnishes fresh-picked.
A winning strategy. Lauren tested her margarita on co-workers, then made adjustments based on their feedback. Her Mixoff winner (see the full recipe here) is a variation on a cocktail already on the High Hat Café list, and one I enjoyed back in January: the Ruby Hendricks (named for the "gateway gin", as Lauren puts it) is blushing soft, with a pale grapefruit nose and a warm nudge from the ginger simple syrup; housemade hibiscus bitters bring out the gin's florals. Eat the candied, perfumed grapefruit rind to prolong the experience.