Some of the complaints against cocktail competitions: They reward overly complex ingredients that nobody will ever adopt behind the bar. They emphasize personality over skill. (These are easy fixes: enlist smart, thoughtful judges.)
The power of these contests - besides endowing the winner with travel, cash, exposure - is that they force bartenders to create within limits, and that's when we often do our best work.
This Tuesday, I dropped by the USBG Tequila Bartender Challenge, held in the soon-to-open Ohm Lounge and drawing local talents Steve Yamada (Tivoli & Lee), Nathan Dalton (Felipe's), Ryan Gannon (Cure) and Marvin Allen (Carousel Bar).
I wasn't a judge, just in the peanut gallery, but we all sampled their Don Julio-based cocktails - a tasty blur of floral liqueurs, cucumber, grapefruit-rosemary soda, and even pepper jelly. (Nathan, who's going on to the finals in New York, drew on his trip to Mexico to fashion a palate-cleansing, beet-praline sangrita that we took between tequila shots.)
My next stop on Tuesday was High Hat Café, where Ryan Iriarte had invited me to preview a few drinks from their upcoming After Hours event (10 p.m., April 6). His most wildly creative drink, and the one that kept me smiling, was Ants on a Log. This, too, had been born of a challenge: Ryan originally wrote it for a "white trash"-themed party.
For this playful drink, Ryan uses a simple syrup made from natural-style peanut butter, then adds it to raisin- and celery-infused vodka. The refrigerated fat wash, which separates out the fat and solids, leaves Ants on a Log surprisingly clear and smooth-textured. And it does taste like fresh peanut silk, with a touch of sweetness from the raisins and - for real - a celery finish.
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