As promised, Maggi and I went to the 2010 Columbus Iron Bartender competition at Cotters on Sunday. It was a fun party, and the competition was entertaining. The crowd was great. We arrived about three minutes after the official start time of the pre-competition cocktail hour, and most of the audience had beaten us there.
After an hour of chatting, people watching, and some great sax music from the band, the Iron Bartenders were introduced. They were (in the order they appeared on the audience ballots):
My abject apologies to our contestants for the photo quality and angles. The event was popular and I couldn’t move… at all.
Once the contestants were announced, the large white cloth covering the center of the bar was ceremoniously whipped away revealing the secret ingredient: Ginger! There was a whole pile of fresh ginger, gorgeous enough to make me want to steal some of the leftovers, several containers of home-made ginger beer, and bottles of Canton ginger liqueur.
The Iron Bartenders fell upon this cornucopia of spicy goodness and carried it back to their stations where they went into a frenzy of grating and blending and juicing. Cotters had supplied the bar with a wide selection of bitters, fruits and other unusual ingredients, the the players had whatever they wanted to work with. (Brave words. I’m sure one of them was wishing for something that wasn’t there.)
For thirty minutes, they made a variety of simple syrups, carved enticing garnishes, and mixed and tasted, and mixed and tasted, and mixed and tasted.
When finished, each produced four portions of a gorgeous-looking concoction to present to the judges, who were a collection of local celebrities and media figures.
Three of the cocktails were in a classic cocktail form, one rimmed attractively, another garnished with flowers, and the last sported a complex construction of blood orange slices. Zak Renzetti-Voit went all Blair Reynolds and got his tiki on with a hollowed out pineapple goblet.
Each Iron Bartender served up the drinks and explained what they had made. Monica Day, the local NBC affiliate reporter was the emcee, and she had a bit of a hard time keeping the crowd quiet enough so that those of us trying to pay attention could hear what was in the drinks. She failed. If I can get a detailed rundown on what was in them, I’ll update the post at the bottom. (UPDATE: I put the info I’ve received in a separate post.) I feel sorry for Monica, she did her best to get things quiet. But I wrangle crowds of drunks for a living, and getting a crowd that size, having that good a time, to quiet down fully is just this side of impossible. To get them to do it four times in the space of twenty minutes is the other side of impossible.
(I apologize for no pictures of Monica, but every pic I took of her trying to quiet the crowd came out really bad. I’m sure she’d thank me for including none of them.)
Once the Iron Bartenders had presented their creations to the judges, they returned behind the bar to make up scores more smaller portions, still elegantly garnished, for we hoi polloi to enjoy.
There were two awards given at the evening’s end, the judges’ prize, and the people’s choice. The winner of both was…
Cris Dehlavi, from M at Miranova!
As I said in my preview post, Cris is a friend, and I have written about her here twice before, so I couldn’t be happier for her. And she deserved to win both awards, but for different reasons.
Her cocktail was classically pretty, and tasted delicious. Had I been a judge, I’d have chosen it too. The hibiscus syrup she made married well with the Canton and other ingredients to make for a balanced cocktail that was slightly sweeter than I usually choose, but then aren’t most drinks? She used the ginger to good effect, giving the cocktail an undertone of exoticism that was further highlighted by the candied hibiscus flower she perched on the rim. It was a good drink that would appeal to a wide range of drinkers, and used the secret ingredient to good but not overpowering effect.
As for why she won the People’s Choice, there were a couple of reasons beyond the quality of the drink. While every bartender there had a crowd of supporters, Cris clearly had the most fans in the room. When the Iron Bartenders were introduced, it was like a home game for her. More importantly, she did one outstanding thing for the crowd. As soon as she finished presenting her drinks to the judges, she went back and got started prepping her made on the spot ingredients and mixing up the big batch of her cocktail to hand out to the crowd. This meant that once all the drinks had been presented to the judges, she had samples ready to go almost immediately for the crowd, well ahead of the other competitors. Now, Cris went first to present her drink, so she had the most time to begin with. But while she had the most time to take a break, she seemed to instead treat the whole process, not just the judges’ drinks, as the competition.
Everyone’s creations were quite good, but her win was well-deserved.
It was a cool event, and well run. I hope Cotters does it again next year, and I’ll close with some suggestions that could make it better. First off, the sound system was set to work for the band. That meant that the mic levels were far too low to be really useful when the bartenders were trying to be heard over the crowd. (See my comments above about Monica’s valiant, doomed struggle) Second, it was hard for most of the crowd to see what was going on during the prep phase. I bet a lot of people who were there still have no idea how much work and creativity and effort all four of these bartenders put into their creations. There are two large TVs overhead of the bar. A roving cameraman behind the bar could feed video to those screens and let the audience see up close how to make a drink cup out of the top of a pineapple, make up a quick infused simple syrup, or rim a glass with something other than salt. Finally, if you fix the sound system, how about stealing one more bit of the Iron Chef schtick, have someone be the equivalent of Alton Brown or Doc Hattori (Hey, I’m available!), and comment a bit on what we were seeing as it happened.
But those thoughts are suggestions, not criticisms. The event was fun and I thought it went well. I hope the organizers, and the sponsor Jack Daniels, think it was a big success and will do it again, next year.