December 2011

Most Inspired Bartender

By: E. C. Gladstone

If one contest could be taken as a bellwether for the state of mixology in North America, it would likely be Bombay Sapphire’s “Most Inspired Bartender.” Sanctioned by the United States Bartender Guild and co-sponsored by GQ magazine, the Las Vegas finals, held September 11–12, brought together, for the fifth consecutive year, a total of forty-six bartenders, whittled down from over 3,000 contestants in local events across the U.S. and Canada. Over two nights, the intense competition whittled the pack down to a semifinal ten and then final three winners, as a rapt audience of fellow professionals, friends and family hung on every swizzle and sip.

“The bar and kitchen are so close together now,” host/judge Tyler Florence told THE TASTING PANEL. “For me, a bartender is just as inspirational as a pastry chef or chef de cuisine.” Here, Tyler is pictured with winner Bryan Dayton and Modern Mixologist Tony Abou-Ganim.

The first night convened at PURE Nightclub’s legendary Strip-view patio atop Caesars Palace, with hopefuls presenting in heats of five to six at a time, while judges including Tony Abou-Ganim (The Modern Mixologist), Francesco Lafranconi (Southern Wine & Spirits Director of Mixology & Education) and Gary Heyward (Bacardi USA/Bombay Sapphire Team Enterprises) imbibed. Ingredients such as edible orchids, cucumber consommé, bee pollen and torched vanilla bean—not to mention current essentials like Kold-Draft ice and Demerara sugar—inspired Abou-Ganim to tell THE TASTING PANEL, “This competition has gotten better every year. Bombay has really set the bar for what a bartender can accomplish.”

“I wanted to showcase Florida citrus,” Scott Mayer told THE TASTING PANEL. Serving his Negroni twist in vintage coupes, he was equally proud of the drink’s double-entendre title, The Bitter Developer.

Contestants had to wait an agonizing 20 more hours until the next evening, when all reconvened at XS nightclub in the Encore resort. With celebrity chef Tyler Florence and THE TASTING PANEL’s Camper English joining Abou-Ganim, Lafranconi and Jason Asher, last year’s Most Inspired Bartender, as judges, the semi-finalists were selected, including Brandon Clements (San Francisco), Bryan Dayton (Boulder), David Delaney (Boston), Luke Edson (Omaha), Scott Mayer (Miami), Adam Rose (Austin), Chris Simmons (San Diego), David Wolowidnyk (Vancouver), Matt Young (Milwaukee) and Mia Sarazen (Los Angeles).

San Francisco bartender Brandon Clements.

With ten full stations set up on the club’s dance floor, each of the semi-finalists was given 12 minutes to craft a new cocktail using a mystery ingredient, the results intended to represent or reflect the mixologist’s home city or region. While it may not have surprised many that the mystery ingredient turned out to be not-yet-released Bombay Sapphire East, that didn’t make it any less a challenge to craft an award-winning libation from a spirit none had even sniffed before.

After each came onstage to build and present his or her cocktail, the judges deliberated in private before announcing the winners. “We hit about every cocktail category,” English told THE TASTING PANEL. “Shaken, stirred, built­—an amazing diversity.” As the saying goes, many were called, but three were chosen:

WINNER: Bryan Dayton (Boulder’s Oak at Fourteenth) shook the Thai-inspired gin with Colorado blackberries, fresh lime and pear juices, a fresh-made sage simple syrup, and yellow Chartreuse in something he dubbed the East Collegiate Peaks cocktail.

FIRST RUNNER-UP: Scott Mayer (Miami’s Sra. Martinez) embellished the new gin’s lemongrass and black pepper notes with Cocchi Americano, Aperol, grapefruit, tarragon, blueberry bitters, a fresh black pepper tincture and torched lemongrass.
Bombay Sapphire’s Gary Hayward and SWS Mixology educator Francesco Lafranconi.

SECOND RUNNER-UP: Brandon Clements (San Francisco’s Spruce and Café Des Amis), who combined Bombay Sapphire East with muddled sage, Fernet-Branca, Luxardo Maraschino, Bénédictine, Regan’s Orange Bitters, garnishing with orange and grapefruit twists and a sage leaf.
“The winner encompassed everything this contest set out for,” said Abou-Ganim. “His presentation took ingredients reminiscent of his home town and combined them in a quite spectacular fashion,” English added.

Dayton will now go on to the global finals of the contest in London next March, while appearing on a limited edition front cover of GQ magazine’s Men of the Year edition, and join the Ambassador team in searching for next year’s Most Inspired.

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