For spectators, cocktail contests are great fun—we get theatrics, exposure to new products and techniques, and often a free taste of the competing drinks. There's drama, of course, in the finish: who gets the trip to Las Vegas or Portland? Who will represent NOLA to enthusiasts around the world?
To get this far, contestants write (rewrite, and then perfect) a recipe showcasing the sponsored brand. They'll practice their presentation, often following IBA rules that govern everything from the way you pick up straws (with tongs) to time (seven minutes or less). Then there's naming the drink in a clever and evocative way.
On the big day, contestants bring in their own bottles of liqueurs, syrups, sodas and juices, as well as pre-made garnishes and even their own glassware. You can see how a contestant can easily be out of pocket $100 or more before even getting to the bar.
More often than not, bartenders will walk away with dirty glassware and not much else. That was Steve Yamada's destiny, it seemed, until the night of the regional GQ/Bombay Sapphire contest in August.
I was a spectator that night, and sensed the blood and sweat (if not tears) that had gone into each handcrafted drink.
When I saw Steve's winning cocktail, and its smoky effect, I knew it was what I wanted to feature in this Halloween column. It sums up the thrills and chills of competition, and the very real fear of pursuing a goal that seems eternally out of your grasp.
After each smackdown, Steve vowed never to enter a cocktail contest again. Then he took the big one.
Steve's written this blood-red punch with a lemon oleo-saccharum base, a nod to the way punches were commonly sweetened in the 19th century. It's a rich, aromatic syrup made from sugar-macerated lemon peels.
Jitterbug Perfume Punch
Written by Steve Yamada, adapted from his winning recipe as a regional finalist in the GQ/Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender contest
5 large lemons
1.5 cups sugar
2 cups strong jasmine tea, brewed and cooled
4 cups Bombay Sapphire
1 cup beet juice
Make an oleo-saccharum by peeling the lemons (be sure to avoid any pith). Cover the peels in sugar and gently muddle to extract oils. Allow to sit out for at least 45 minutes.
Juice the lemons and strain to remove pulp. Add juice to the sugar/peel mixture. Add tea and stir well to be sure all sugar is dissolved. Strain mixture and discard peels.
To serve, combine lemon/tea base with gin and beet juice in a large punch bowl with a large block of ice. Stir briefly.
Use a Cold Smoke gun to smoke some dry jasmine tea over the punch and cover with a lid.
You can create the same spooky vibes with dry ice: place your punch bowl into a shallow bowl, then use tongs to carefully place dry ice cubes around the base of the punch bowl. Pour room-temp water over the dry ice until you see the smoke start to come up.
Either way, serve punch over regular rocks with cracked black pepper on top.
Steve's behind the stick, along with bar manager Kimberly Patton-Bragg, at Tivoli & Lee (Hotel Modern), 936 St. Charles Ave., 962.0909.
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