Saturday I entered my first cocktail competition. It was for the USBG Bartender’s Battle at Crop Bistro. It was part of Cleveland Cocktail Week.
I found out about it in early August when I joined the USBG. The rules required you to use a product from one of seven Ohio distilleries. It was supposed to be a brunch cocktail and couldn’t be a Bloody Mary, which would be too obvious anyway. It’s fall, and my favorite thing about Ohio this time of year is the stone fruit. Our peaches, plums and apples are second to none, and for some reason a lot of Ohioans don’t even know they grow here! I was told I’d have to make 120 samples for attendees (2 ounces each) plus four full eight ounce drinks for the judges, so 272 ounces in total.
I also knew I wanted to go bubbly. When I think brunch cocktails my first thought is a mimosa. My second thought is a Bellini. There’s just something so refreshing about bubbly drinks in the afternoon that I had to try it.
I also knew I wanted to batch the drink. I mean, I pretty much always want to batch the drink. Now that I have the technology to do shaken drinks in a keg and figured out how to replace fresh citrus (more on those later) batching is just better almost 100% of the time. And I thought my competitors might be hassled trying to shake and strain what amounted to 34 drinks in a short period of time if we got an early rush.
So I worked out a recipe using clarified plum juice, Dave Arnold’s coriander soda (modified to use Asian chilis), plum vinegar, and OYO White Rye. It was probably the best cocktail I’d ever come up with. Coriander soda (recipe in Liquid Intelligence) has a taste not too dissimilar to ginger beer. It was sort of an Asian/Midwestern fusion and it was fucking fantastic, and I’ll probably serve a version of it at my launch party.
The rules said you’d get the liquor the morning of the event. I wasn’t sure which way to go with that for a carbonated drink. Option #1 was to try to get the liquor a day or more early. I could batch out and carbonate the rest of the drink at my leisure, get the liquor, add it, and then re-carbonate.
Option #2 was to do some dry ice magic at the event venue. I could batch everything but the liquor in a keg, and take some dry ice up with me. When I showed up to the event, I could toss the liquor into a bowl, use dry ice to chill it rapidly (which would also lightly carbonate) then finish force carbonating in the keg. Of course I’d have to bring the keg, the tank and regulator, etc.
Option #3 was to just serve it the way people normally serve Moscow Mules. I’d batch up the soda, then still chill and lightly carbonate the liquor with dry ice to as cold as I could. Add the liquor to the serving glass and top with soda.
At the last moment I saw you could submit a second recipe. So I decided to go with another fall staple, peaches. I made up a recipe off the top of my head and balanced it with my cocktail calculus spreadsheet. It was basically a Moscow Mule, but fall style. I was using Tom Foolery’s bourbon with a modified ginger beer, force carbonated. I hadn’t even tried it and just hoped they’d pick the coriander plum drink.
I submitted the cocktails on 8/31. I was supposed to hear back from them on 9/6. I really needed the two weeks between the announcement and the event because either way I was clarifying a lot of stone fruit. (Turns out a bushel gets you about 5 liters.) I had to buy an entire bushel, remove the stones, juice, treat with pectin, set with agar, then allow to thaw. Not to mention the end of peach season was rapidly approaching, so if that drink got picked I wasn’t totally sure there’d be any left at the orchard.
It came and went with nothing. I gave it a few days to account for bartender time, and when I didn’t hear anything just assumed I hadn’t been chosen. Finally on the 11th I got the notice that I’d been accepted, though the bad news was it was the peach cocktail that had only ever existed in spreadsheet form!
So I scrambled the next day to the orchard and bought what turned out to be the last bushel of peaches they had. Had I gotten the notice one day later, I might have had to use grocery store peaches (gross). But I was immediately in a scramble to get a gallon of clarified peach juice.
For the submission I had taken my standard ginger beer recipe (stolen from Jeffrey Morgenthaler) and modified it to use brown sugar simple instead of plain, clarified peach juice instead of water, and plum vinegar instead of lemon. I had to adjust all of the levels to account for the fact that clarified peach juice has some acid (about .6%, according to my titration test) and a lot of sugar. When I put it in the refractometer, the peach juice turned out to be 21.6% sugar! No wonder those things are so damn tasty.
In fact, clarified peach juice oddly is half of the final acidity and about 100% of the sugar you get from the lemon and simple in the normal recipe. So you could really just add half of the lemon and your ginger and be good to go. But I ended up adjusting the acidity a little up with the plum vinegar and a little citric acid so I could use some simple because I wanted to get that brown sugar taste in. I felt like it would go really well with the other flavors.
Anyway, thanks to my handy dandy refractometer, acid titration test kit, and a spreadsheet that uses Dave Arnold’s Cocktail Calculus section in Liquid Intelligence, plus lots of taste testing, I was able to get the drink exactly where I wanted it. It ended up being pretty much what I had submitted, with the one modification that I didn’t like using just plum vinegar. There was just too much acetic acid flavor.
So the process was as follows:
Saturday: Run to the orchard and buy the last of the peaches.
Sunday: Have my friends help me cut juice them. Pre-treat with Pectinex Ultra-SPL. (See the clarification section of Liquid Intelligence if you want the details). Set some of it with agar to test out freeze-thaw.
Monday: Thaw the batch set with agar. It works beautifully. Carbonates with very low foam. Promptly gel and freeze the rest of the juice in a giant hotel pan.
Tuesday: Thaw the rest of the peaches. Buy the ginger. Make a few liters brown sugar simple syrup. And a liter of 6% citric acid solution.
Wednesday: Enjoy one day of relaxing/housecleaning/actually getting shit done for my day job.
Thursday: Juice ginger. Why haven’t I bought a masticating juicer yet? Centrifugal gets the job done but it’s low yield and sucks to do. Prep everything. Sanitize and clean kegs and a bunch of 5 gallon buckets. Buy lots of canned peaches, cut them up, and put them in a keg to carbonate for garnish.
Friday: Put the whole thing together in a 5 gallon bucket. Find out only afterward that I bought the wrong vinegar and it’s extremely salty. It said it was ume vinegar but was actually umeboshi vinegar. Ume is a Japanese plum. Umeboshi is a salted, preserved ume. Batch is ruined. Fuuuuuuck.
I’ve used most of the clarified peach juice, and there won’t be enough left to get the flavor I want, so now I have to go buy more liquor, rapid-infuse it with lots of thawed frozen peaches (the orchard is done selling those now) in an ISI whip, 400ml at a time, and spend the next 12 hours doing that. Oh, have to go buy and juice 7 more lbs of ginger, make more brown sugar simple and citric acid solution, etc.
Also am hosting an event in the evening that I can’t skip, so I take a 3 hour detour in the middle of the mess. My house looks like a terrorist attacked a peach cannery.
Come back and try kegging the drink with the hope of serving with a pigtail. Nope, way too foamy. Thought that might happen. I’ll just pour the drinks. Switch to 2L bottles and the carbonater. I have four of them but can only find three, and I need to do 6 bottles.
Saturday: Head up to the event. Door isn’t open for like a half hour past when it was supposed to be. The good news is, all I have to do at the venue is put the peaches on a stick and smile. I would have even prepped the garnish but I thought the peaches might fall off the toothpicks when I tried to get them out of the keg. Steal some basic supplies from the restaurant’s kitchen and get ‘er done. Throw a few peaches in the ISI with a hit of CO2 so they’re extra fizzy for the judges.
The setup turns out to be we each get a table. I pull my cooler up between mine and the neighbor’s. I grab a bunch of ice from the ice maker, start filling up sample cups, pouring, and topping. I quickly realize the brunch isn’t as crowded as I thought (no 120 people) so they’re going to sit there and get diluted and go flat. I stop pouring, chalk them up as display models, and just pour individual samples whenever someone comes by. Carbonated drinks cannot be left to sit on ice for long.
I find out that the first round is judged by the attendees. I was kind of banking on that. Had it been the four judges, I’d have had to work an amaro in or something.
They gave us some larger cups for if people want more than a sample. I start noticing people coming back to my line over and over. I look around and that doesn’t seem to be happening to anyone else. Some people request extra carbonated peaches because, well, they’re delightful. Everyone’s telling me how great my drink is, except one of the four judges who doesn’t like that I used canned peaches. That’s fucking crazy. (I even heard about it later from another judge.) Canned peaches are the most delicious thing in the universe, and fresh peaches often don’t have enough sweetness to balance out the acidic taste of carbonation. They’re not as bad as a strawberry (which just tastes rancid) but they’re not as good fizzy as canned.
The girl running the show is going around asking with a notepad and I see lots of people pointing to me. My drink, it turns out, is an overwhelming favorite. Me and a girl from one of the better bars in Cleveland go on to round 2, the Iron Chef-style competition.
For round two the judges give us $20 and 20 minutes to go shopping at West Side Market. I had brought my ISI whip in case I had gotten to round two, figuring I’d either do a rapid infusion with it, or a carbonated drink, or just a really cool foam garnish. I look at the supplies available before I head to the market. I have to use a wheat whiskey I’d never tasted, but it’s wheat whiskey and the local distillery that made it makes good products, so I feel confident. I see some very fall-ish looking items for use. Cinnamon and various other spices, some apple cider, etc. I decide to try to find some medjool dates to rapid infuse the whiskey with. One girl mentions they have a tea shop over there, and I think of some oolong.
The market is soooo crowded but 20 minutes is way more than enough time. I run to the produce section. Nobody there has dates so I pick up some figs as a fallback. That also sounds good right? I grab an apple for garnish too. Then I run to the main part of the market and find the tea store. Their tea is $30 an ounce, and they can’t go lower than 1/2 on their scale. I don’t have $15 to spare so I explain the competition and ask if they can help a brother out. They can and I get a little tea for $1.
I find a spice shop that also has dried fruit and score, they have medjool dates! I get $5 worth. Between the the dates, figs, apple, and tea I’ve got $8 left, and I’m feeling like more tea. I run back to the girl and ask her if I can get a little more for $8. She hooks me up. I get out of the market with a few minutes to spare but neither my opponent nor the judge are anywhere to be found. Was I supposed to meet back at the restaurant? Shit. I cross the road, then see them back at the market. Oh well.
So then we get back and I’ve got 15 minutes to make the cocktail. I get a saucepan from the kitchen and use it to smash some cinnamon. I chop the dates and toss them with the cinnamon and oolong into the ISI, fill it full of whiskey, and start the rapid infusion. I prep the glasses and the apple wedge garnish, dig up the cider for acid, prep my stirring tin, grab some simple to get that at the ready. I’m good to go.
Toward the end of the time I start wondering if my drink is going to have enough sourness. There’s a little acid in the cider, thanks to the cranberry, but not much. I see a lemon but nothing with which to squeeze it and no open containers to squeeze it into. I’m seriously debating hand squeezing it into some sample cups, one ounce at a time, but I notice my opponent has no acid either and I’m already pressed for time. I’m not sure one ounce of lemon (and good luck wringing more than that out of a small lemon with your hands) is going to help much.
When the timer gets to 4 minutes, I end the rapid infusion. I only got about 8 minutes in but that’s picked up some flavor, especially from the oolong. I pour all the whiskey into the tin (we had to make some samples for the judges as well) and taste. It’s good. I add a little cider. Still not enough acid. I add a bunch more. Better. Still wish I had juiced the lemon, but hey, it’s something.
I serve it on the rocks with an apple wedge and a cinnamon stick. I think it’s good, and with some acid could have been really good. One of the judges tells me the same thing a day later. I taste the opponent’s. I like it though I have no idea what’s in it. It’s a bit too hot and needs acid, but mine does too so I don’t feel as confident as I’d like to.
The judging comes. We hold hands while they read the verdict. They do their best Iron Chef judge impressions, and say it was a coin toss. Turns out I won. A little lemon juice and I might have expected that but my cocktail was imperfect too. I can see why it might have been a hard decision.
Later that night I go to the bar where my competitor works. Coincidentally, not to rub it in, though of course I plan to ask her how Cleveland’s second best bartender is doing. She isn’t there but I still get a couple shots of Fernet on the house. I like these USBG people.