To say that this year’s Bartenders Battle was the best display of talent in the six years since its creation would be an understatement and a disservice to not only the bartenders who made it into the competition, but also the incredibly creative and seasoned professionals who barely missed out on taking their skills to the stage at the Holiday Inn Great Hall on Sunday the 14th.
In fact, the competition was so fierce this year that we had to add a “build your way in” to this year’s contest where Justin Ryttie and James Hein went head to head in a round that was held on site and in front of the captive audience. This “bartender’s choice” round gave the competitors a chance to really bring their favorite flavors and give the nerves a bit of a test drive as well. At first it came as somewhat of a surprise that they both chose to work with gin but looking back on a week in which I found myself stuck in Denver due to a late season blizzard, it makes sense that they were tuned in to our collective desire for sunshine and bright, botanical refreshments.
While former competitor and seasoned bartender Andrew Hardy gave his co-host JJ Gordon the lowdown on exactly how stressful this competition could be and how the stomach grumbles in particular can affect your mental game, Justin and James got to work and within just a few short minutes our judges were presented with their first task of the evening.
Justin offered up a somewhat earthy take on a gin and tonic that used the new to the market Suntory Roku Gin in conjunction with Effen Cucumber, Cointreau, and a touch of rosemary. James offered up a crisp, bright “G&T” with Sipsmith gin, cucumber, basil, and prosecco instead of tonic. The brightness and aromatic bubbles from the prosecco helped lift all those beautiful botanicals straight to the nose and the perfect amount of lime juice tied it all together and sent James into the first round of the competition.
While James took a rest, we continued down the incredibly strong brackets for the first official round of the competition which saw Josh Goedtke square off against Tori Luck. One of us judges drew a piece of paper from the cup that would reveal the spirit for this head to head and as the word “whiskey” was read aloud the timer was started. DJ Taylor Bride spun a mix of sea shanties and island grooves and the jiggers, shakers and knives were sent into action as each competitor began to build their first offerings in the 2019 High Plains Reader Bartenders Battle.
Josh chose the old Fargo favorite, Jameson as his base spirit and added to it some fresh summer fruit in the form of watermelon and strawberry juice. It was garnished with a great looking strawberry with a watermelon rind mohawk that made us all smile and while it was refreshing and bright, this summer sipper was perhaps a bit too easy to drink and the whiskey flavor seemed barely present.
Tori grabbed the full proof version of 1792 to make sure that the whiskey was the star of this springtime whiskey sour that was softened with egg white. She used a rhubarb basil syrup and just the right amount of burlesque bitters and lemon juice, then garnished it with a beautiful and aromatic mix of lavender and a pink edible flower. I was stunned by how much the bourbon came through such a strong but pleasant bouquet of aromatics, even as I picked excess lavender from my beard.
Like almost every single head to head battle of this competition, the scoring was incredibly close and one judge even had an outright tie on their scorecard but it was Tori whose whiskey drink won her a spot in the second round.
Our next battle of the evening was a shake off between Aaron Duma and Jared Winmill featuring the spirit chosen at random by the judges...tequila. Not only did each competitor reach for a different brand of tequila for their builds but they also took their cocktails in completely different directions, which once again proved challenging for our judges to compare.
While Aaron presented a bright and tropical take that featured guava and mango juice and Hornitos Cristalino tequila, Jared infused his Casa Noble Anejo tequila with champagne mangos and then went for a tequila “flip” with a full egg. Where Aaron used touches of bright citrus and simple syrup Jared used burlesque bitters and a sage and honey syrup to accent the earthiness of the tequila. Aaron’s drink was presented with a simple strawberry garnish while Jared dropped a couple drops of the burlesque bitters on top of his perfect egg foam layer as an aromatic garnish. In the end, it came down to splitting hairs and the judges gave a narrow victory to Jared Winmill.
The final head to head of our first round put Elijah Larson against Molly Fontaine in a flavor battle that featured one of my favorite spirits to sip or mix with: bourbon. Most of the competitors in these battles have had me sit down in front of them and ask them to mix me up something using bourbon that they find tasty and I’ve had some incredible top notch offerings from both Elijah and Molly in the past so I knew this one would be one of the toughest to judge. They did not disappoint.
Molly used one of my favorite sipping bourbons, Basil Hayden, which she infused with lavender and some real sugar. The infused spirit was then used to make a take on a whiskey sour which was served up in a coupe glass and garnished with some lemon zest.
Elijah reached first for a bottle of Buffalo Trace and then for his not so secret weapon, a hand made black tea and banana syrup. He used these and some black walnut bitters to deliver a classic old fashioned with an orange twist garnish and enough depth from the banana, tea, and walnut to send him into the semifinals.
Our last battle of the first round saw James Hein make a return to the stage to face off against who would quickly become the showman of the evening, Aaron Benson and while the random choice spirit of vodka would do little to excite the judges, competitors, or crowd, Aaron would more than make up for it with his “flair”.
With a huge smile on his face and a DJ Taylor Bride driven bounce to his shoulders, Aaron opened a little treasure chest he had brought to his station and out came 4 coconut halves that were treated and decorated to be used as his serving vessels. The crowd responded with a cheer and us judges couldn’t help but meet his energy with our own smiles. He then built his drink using Effen vodka, coconut scratch syrup, Luxardo Amaretto, pineapple juice and a touch of lime juice. He infused the drink with some rosemary smoke and garnished it with a bruleed banana slice and a expertly cut palm leaf. The ladies on the panel of judges were heard saying “This smells and tastes like a fucking vacation!”.
While James delivered a delicious combination of fruit and earth with his strawberry and rosemary vodka cocktail that featured the newly released Suntory Haku rice vodka, there was no overcoming Benson’s flavor explosion and presentation clinic. By a unanimous decision, the battle’s rookie competitor had earned a spot in the semifinals amongst a list of seasoned veterans.
Both semifinal rounds, like in previous years, called on our competitors to make cocktails that featured craft beer. This year’s beer sponsor, Kilstone Brewing, provided four different brews for the competitors to choose from: Chocofee Chocolate Coffee Stout, A Toast to My Peeps (pale ale with lavender and vanilla), Pineapple Wheat, and Mango Habanero Wheat. Jared and Elijah were given their choice of beer but required to use gin in their creations. Jared chose both the pineapple wheat and the peeps beer and began by attempting to reduce them down to a syrup. He used the Suntory Hoku Gin and a combination of orange and burlesque bitters in conjunction with the beer reduction and served it all down in a low martini glass with lavender garnish. Though the drink was aromatically pleasing, the reduction didn’t seem to quite work out as planned which may have led to the flavors not coming through exactly as intended.Elijah chose Beefeater London dry gin, heavy cream, egg white and the pineapple wheat beer to create a pineapple gin fizz that he served up in wine goblets. While he did add a bit of pineapple juice to boost the fruit flavor it wasn’t enough to overwhelm the wheat and yeast flavors from the beer that were pulled into the whipped up creamy body. After a long deliberation that delivered another narrow victory, Elijah Larson was awarded the first spot in the final round.
For the last semifinal round there was but one lonely slip of paper left in the Bartenders Battle trophy cup and that slip of paper would reveal the spirit that Tori Luck and Aaron Adrian Benson would have to use, in conjunction with a Kilstone brewed beer, in order to face Elijah in the finals. It was the spirit that all pirates love almost as much as the sea itself - rum!!
Tori brought a bit of a polynesian pirate vibe to her Zaya rum and Mango Habanero beer cocktail by including orgeat, an almond syrup typically associated with tiki drinks. She also incorporated a bit of aloe, mint, and of course fresh lime juice and then garnished with borage and another pink edible flower to further drive home that island tiki vibe. Another beautifully presented drink but unfortunately, the orgeat and aloe took over just a bit much and the rum and beer could’ve come forward a bit more.
Benson grabbed the peeps beer and Sailor Jerry spiced rum to which he added some sage simple syrup, watermelon and blueberry juice. As a shout out to the Lost Boys in Hook, he dubbed the drink “Bangarang” which, according to the Urban dictionary, can also be a general exclamation meant to signify approval or amazement. Amazement at how the lavender and sage perfectly peeked out from beneath the sweet fruit juices and rum spices and approval enough to gain entry into the finals was exactly what he earned from the judges.
As far as final rounds go, we couldn’t have asked for such a poetic battle. The newest to the competition faces off against a competition veteran and 2017 Bartenders Battle champion. Aaron Adrian Benson was competing in his first battle and Elijah “Poppa Shakes” Larson had made it clear that this would be his last year competing. It wasn’t more than a year ago that I was getting the best gin and tonics in town from both of them at Proof, where Benson was honing his craft as an apprentice of sorts, learning from Lij where he could before taking his garnish and presentation game to a whole new level that blew away our judges in the Cocktail Showdown and secured his spot in this years Bartenders Battle.
As in previous years, Republic National Distributing Company provided a secret spirit for the final round that had never been seen or tasted by any of the competitors or judges. This year, it was Cruzan blackstrap rum, a thick, molasses driven rum that was rich in flavor and perfect for a pirate party. The competitors were given ten minutes to create two drinks, one that featured the blackstrap rum and one that was bartender’s choice.
Elijah reached for his special black tea and banana syrup, coconut creme, passionfruit and lime juice and some Amaro to add a bit of a dry, herbal finish to a complex and deep drink that let the blackstrap rum be the centerpiece while everything else danced around it.
Aaron offered up a dark and mysterious twist on the classic Hemingway daiquiri by using the blackstrap rum in place of the white Havana Club rum. Blackstrap rum and Luxardo cherry played well together but the molasses from the rum was brightened by the grapefruit in a strange and unexpected way that while I found it interesting and it kept me coming back to sip more though I never felt like I understood the combo.
For his second offering, Aaron reached for the Sipsmith gin, Lilet, cucumbers and some fresh lemon juice to mix up a bright play on a Vesper that was loaded with crisp cucumber essence and a touch of heat. The beautiful cucumber ribbon garnish and shaved ginger elevated the drink both in terms of appearance and flavor and reinforced my opinion that he has become one to seek out if you are looking for a top notch gin drink.
Elijah reached for Luna Azul tequila blanco, around which he built a cocktail that used a jalapeno pineapple shrub, pineapple and grapefruit juice in perfect proportion with a touch of bitters and garnished with a simple orange twist.
To most of the judges, Elijah seemed to have a better handle on using the blackstrap rum while Benson’s use of botanicals and garnish game had him winning the bartender’s choice portion of the round. The scorecards were gone over a second time and by a tiny but decisive margin, Elijah “Poppa Shakes” Larson was the first competitor to ever win two High Plains Reader Bartenders Battle cups. True to the spirit of a good natured competition that seeks to elevate everyone’s game, Elijah embraced Benson before he mixed up a giant cocktail in the oversized glass trophy cup and passed it around for his fellow contestants to take a little drink in celebration of a fantastic night for the cocktail scene in the Fargo metro area.
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