Monday was the second round of the Chopped Mixology Competition at Mozaik in the Columbus Arena District. (First round results here) I had the very cool opportunity to be a judge this time around, and it was a great time. This week’s winner was Zak Renzetti-Voit, who bartends at Black Olive. Zak benefited from some extensive experience in competitive mixology. He was one of Columbus’ Iron Bartenders, and also was a national finalist in the Bombay Sapphire Most Inspired Bartender competition in Las Vegas.
The first round was marked by the exceptional looks of all the drinks. Among the secret ingredients that each contestant had to use in his or her drink were Finlandia Vodka and star fruit. (I never wrote down the exact lists, bad journalist! No cookie!) Each of the potions we were presented had that, “Ooh. What is that she’s having, bartender?” appearance.
In fact, the first contestant to be chopped fell afoul of making his drink too pretty. Larry, who has been bar manager at J. Liu’s Dublin location almost since it opened, wanted the beautiful layered appearance you can just make out above in his Tidal Wave creation. But the separation of flavors made a well-conceived recipe taste unbalanced. Also, the very nifty lime boat garnishes he made each capsized as he brought the drinks over to us. There are fifty Poseidon Adventure jokes to be made, especially given the drink name of Tidal Wave, so I’ll leave them to you, dear reader, to make for yourself.
One area that this week’s contestants were much stronger on than last’s was in drink naming. I find that to be an important part of the scoring chart.
The next round won me and the other judges no friends. Jack Daniels lead the secret ingredients, along with dried chili peppers. We got three utterly different drinks this round, in taste and appearance. The other judges and I took some time to make a decision here.
The one who got chopped was Bee, who make a drink she called S’Mores. It was a cream-based highball with a lovely strawberry garnish. And it tasted really good, maybe the best of the round. But the problem was that neither of the two secret ingredients I mentioned were apparent at all in her final product. When I explained this as we announced our decision, I got us pretty comprehensively booed by Bee’s section of the crowd.
Actually, getting booed aside, the crowd is one of the really fun things about this competition. Each contestant has a lot of support among the multitude, and there is a lot of cheering and hollering. Also, many of the contestants make use of the stacks of shot glasses around them as they are formulating their entries, trying variations out on the fans clustered around them as they work.
While Michael and Zak prepared for the final challenge, Bee and Larry came back out for a lightning round shot contest. They formulated and served up shots for the crowd as quickly as possible in a naked attempt to convince them to vote for them for the consolation prize.
The last round featured Southern Comfort, pecans, Fee’s Aztec Chocolate Bitters, and apple butter! I was impressed by how decisively both guys embarked on the challenge here. Zak was yelling for eggs, while Michael crumbled pecans and tossed the large crumbs in the bitters. Both chose to rim their cocktail glasses with the apple butter. Michael embedded the pecans in the butter, while Zak dipped his in toasted coconut.
To be honest, when I saw the ingredient list, I didn’t know what to think, and had steeled myself for a strange third round. But these two drinks were the best of the night. Michael’s Apple Pecan Peach Rob Roy was a solid drink that looked and tasted great. If you had told me that single-malt and SoCo could work well together, I’d have scoffed mightily. I’d have been wrong.
But Zak’s Breakfast Before Bed was just a bit better. His float of whipped egg whites added both visual interest and some nice smoothness as well. The bitters demonstrated why they are such an important part of modern cocktailia, melding and punching up the other flavors very well.
We judges enjoyed the drinks for this last round, but not making our final decision. If one of these guys had had the grace to make a clunker in the final round, we could have kicked back and relaxed. But noooo! We had to go back through all our scratched out notes from the first two rounds and ask each other a lot of questions, when we could have been enjoying the drinks.
In the end, I think we made the right decision. This was a very strong field, with our two finalists last night both being Iron Bartender veterans.
With Cris, who won week one, that is all the Iron Bartenders we’ll have in this competition. The fourth contestant from that event, Brandon Bowsher, is the organizer of Chopped Mixology, and thus won’t be competing. (Also, he only has so many hands to nearly cut off during bartending competitions…) As I have said here before, the thing that most impresses me about Brandon is how he learns from experience. This week’s event ran faster and more smoothly than last. The crowd was larger, and Brandon and company did an even better job of keeping them involved directly in the event. It really is a great party, as well as a legitimate, interesting competition. I hope you’ll come down for the next few Mondays and join in. Cheer on your favorite bartender, or go shopping among the contestants for a new one!