I think a man ought to get drunk at least twice a year just on principle, so he won’t let himself get snotty about it. — Raymond Chandler
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“Nine competitors — that means I have to drink nine cocktails in under two hours,” I said. “I probably should have eaten something.”
“Just take little sips of each one until you’ve finished judging it and then move on to the next,” David suggested.
“I could share something,” said Aaryn. “But not a burger or anything like that, it has to be something that won’t mess our lips.”
“Good call.” I lifted the bar menu from our table. Apparently, snack options at the Hard Rock Café are limited. I passed over the nachos, quesadillas, and potato skins — messy things, greasy things that don’t play well with red lipstick. When the server returned to check on us, I ordered chicken tenders and fries, bite-sized bits that could easily pass between painted lips.
“Would you like a drink with that?” asked the server.
“You’re joking, right?” I said. “How about some water? The goal here is not to puke.” After the woman walked away, I turned to Aaryn. “Maybe I shouldn’t have acted so appalled that she offered us a drink. I mean, we did have a glass of wine before coming here.”
“Right, the warm-up,” Aaryn said with a crooked smile. Earlier we’d joked that we couldn’t run a marathon without warming up first — no one wants to get injured.
Shortly after I was invited to be one of the judges for the Gaslamp Spirited Bartender Battle, I had asked Aaryn, my friend and fellow writer, to judge with me. David was kind enough to drive us downtown and take responsibility for getting our drunk asses home.
Aaryn and I met the other two judges (Edward of Masters of Whisky and Nadav of DiscoverSD.com) in a back room, where Liz, founder of San Diego Spirits Festival and the battle’s organizer, had gathered all of the competitors and judges.
The private dining room smelled sweet and citrusy. I traced the bouquet to the corner, where Derwayne, a bartender at McCormick & Schmick’s, was busy juicing an enormous amount of passion fruit. Liz asked the bartenders to go around the room and introduce themselves. Of all the bars represented (Palm Restaurant, Donovan’s Circle of 5ths, Hard Rock Café and Hotel, Prohibition, the Merk, and Se San Diego), I had tasted cocktails from only one. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t primed.
In preparation for my role as alcohol adjudicator, I had spent four days in New Orleans, sampling the offerings of some of the country’s best bartenders. I arrived home the day before the competition, so all was still fresh (or fuzzy, depending on how you look at it) in my head.
While in New Orleans, I made a point of hitting up Chris McMillian, fourth-generation bartender and cofounder of the Museum of the American Cocktail. David, our friend Mia, and I found Chris at Bar Uncommon, which was located a short walk from our hotel (probably one of David’s planned coincidences).
I’d been on a bourbon kick since the first of the month, when David insisted I taste the batch he’d infused with vanilla beans, caramelized figs, cinnamon sticks, and oranges. Without looking at a menu or asking for recommendations, I asked the expert mixologist for “something with bourbon.”
Chris — who’d heard me mention that I didn’t much care for the smokiness of scotch — set before me a martini glass filled with amber liquid. I took a sip and looked up at the bartender in awe. He had rinsed the glass with crème de cacao to bring out the bourbon’s sweetness while suppressing its “whiskey-ness.” I’m not sure what other magic he wielded over the drink, but the beverage was simple, elegant, and delicious.
Chris placed a short tumbler garnished with a brandied cherry wrapped in a slice of orange before David, who’d also asked for a bourbon-based concoction. Mia got a champagne glass filled with sparkling golden liquid and a twist of orange peel — the classic French 75 cocktail. After cross-tasting each other’s drinks, we each preferred our own. For our second round, Chris made three different cocktails, and again, like a seasoned psychic, he’d deduced our individual tastes.
Unfortunately, I was unable to sample a third round of the maestro’s creations. We were in New Orleans, which meant I’d been drinking for the better part of the day. Pimm’s Cups at the Napoleon House, Brandy Milk Punch at the bar in our hotel, wine at Emeril’s — a lesser woman would have staggered back to her hotel room before adding two boozy bourbon beverages to that liver-poisoning list. Not me. I forged ahead. Although, according to David and Mia, I made farty noises with my mouth and giggled as we teetered our way back to the hotel.
The point is, I had not only been boning up on cocktail lore, I had also been building up my tolerance for alcohol. I was ready to consume.
The judges shared two tall tables facing a stage area, on which three low tables were set up. As the first three competitors began their preparations, we assessed how they handled their tools. There were five criteria on which they were being judged: presentation, aroma, taste, consistency, and flair/style.
As he watched the competitors mix, pour, and garnish their original creations from the other side of the rope, David joked that wild hibiscus flowers in syrup are to cocktails in 2010 what molten lava cake was to dessert menus in 2008. When I tried to share my first drink with him, Liz quickly came by and reminded us that no one else could taste the cocktails until they were judged (bartenders were also making larger batches of their mixtures that would be poured into tiny plastic cups for the crowd).
Aaryn and I shared comments with the other judges as we all sniffed, sipped, and swirled. I was so concerned about getting tipsy that I limited myself to the smallest mouthfuls; I only went back for surplus sips on the cocktails I thought stood above the rest (such as “Bulleit in Your Head,” made by Dean of Se San Diego; “Fiery Passion in Paradise,” by Krystal of Donovan’s Circle of 5ths; and “Blink Tiger Manhattan,” by Dustin of Prohibition).
All of the glasses, most of them full, were removed from my table. The numbers were tallied, and Krystal claimed her overwhelming victory for her delectable drink containing fresh basil and cayenne pepper. While she was posing for pictures, I realized that I was sober. As I searched for the server who had offered to take my drink order, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had over-trained.