I felt like Brer Rabbit begging, “Please don’t throw me into the bourbon patch.”
I was asked to be a judge at a contest among bartenders trying to make the best bourbon cocktail. I thought about it for a full nanosecond before agreeing to participate.
The contest was held last week at Brennan’s, in the Central West End. I have been pondering the experience ever since, and after Aristotelian levels of thought I have come to the inescapable conclusion that I ought to be invited to judge cocktail contests more often.
Last week’s event was the United States Bartenders’ Guild Bourbon Battle Semifinals, sponsored by Lux Row Distillers. Ten local bartenders went head-to-head in a contest to create a bourbon-based cocktail worthy of representing St. Louis in the national finals in September.
Six cities will be represented at that final contest. The grand prize winner will receive 60 custom-labeled bottles from a barrel of his own choosing, which is a big deal to people in the bourbon business.
Because the stakes were high, the pressure placed on the four judges was intense.
Fortunately, one of my favorite ways to deal with pressure is with bourbon. So that worked out well.
Even so, I had an additional source of stress coming from my immediate left. The judge seated next to me was Ted Kilgore, the beverage director and proprietor of Planter’s House and inarguably the most accomplished mixologist in town. His cocktail recipes have appeared basically everywhere, and he is the only Beverage Alcohol Resource certification holder in the area.
I don’t even know what that means, but I’m impressed. Sitting next to Kilgore at a cocktail competition is like a pony sharing a stall with Secretariat. It’s like a Little League player facing Nolan Ryan. It’s like playing one-on-one with Michael Jordan.
And yes, I know all of my references are at least 30 years old, but Kilgore’s knowledge of cocktails is so intimidating that it made me feel like a boy drinking next to a man. (I’m just going to go with the idea that I was a boy 30 years ago. Don’t do the math.)
Our two fellow judges were no slouches, either. Mark Soifer is the St. Louis chapter leader of the United States Bartenders’ Guild, and Allyson Mace is co-founder and publisher of Sauce Magazine.
On the other hand, I was introduced as not only being the food writer for the Post-Dispatch but also a “bourbon enthusiast.” I like that. I think I want it on my tombstone.
With so much on the line, we judges took our jobs seriously. Each cocktail was given a score based on its appearance, its aroma, its creativity and its taste. We only had a few sips from each drink, which was kind of a waste, but you can see the logic behind it.
The base spirit for each cocktail was Rebel Yell Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, which is made by the sponsor, Lux Row Distillery (their parent company, Luxco, is located in St. Louis).
Many of the competitors added fruit juices to their bourbon, and nearly everyone tempered the added sweetness with some form of bitter liqueur, such as Campari or an Amaro.
Two of the competitors took advantage of the classic combination of peach and bourbon, and one of them was voted the winner. Naomi Roquet of Reeds American Table won with her drink called Millions of Peaches.
This winning drink was an exceptionally well-balanced concoction blending Rebel Yell bourbon with Giffard Crème de Pêche (peach liqueur), Benedictine (to bring out the honeyed notes in the bourbon) and just a splash of the bitter Fernet Branca, served over hand-crushed ice and garnished with plenty of mint.
Roquet said she was delighted to win and looks forward to competing in the finals in September. Meanwhile, the very day I wrote this I was invited to be a judge at an upcoming cocktail competition in Clayton.
I like where this trend is going.