Five top local bartenders showcased their talents in front of a crowd of more than 150 on Thursday at Blu Restaurant and Lounge at the second-annual On the Rocks bartenders contest, part of the Sugar Land Wine & Food Affair.
Before making it to the grand finale at Blu, applicants first submitted drink ideas, incorporating El Tesoro Tequila, to Tipsy Texan David Alan, the evening's host and emcee. Alan narrowed the the field of hopefuls down to five based on recipes that fit within the event guidelines (at least 1.5 ounces of El Tesoro, no more than six ingredients, etc.) and sounded interesting and delicious.
With a grand prize of $1,000 at stake, bartenders started the night by serving their creative concoctions to the crowd at individual bar stations, soliciting votes for the people's choice award, which added 15 points to the score from the judges.
One by one, they were called to the judges table to demonstrate their skills for the panel, which included CultureMap associate editor Sarah Rufca, Katharine Shilcutt of the Houston Press, 2011 On the Rocks champion Alba Huerta of Anvil, chef Kelly Liken of Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail (an alum of Bravo’s Top Chef and Food Network’s Iron Chef America) and chef Mark DeNittis of Il Mondo Vecchio in Denver.
Judges rated each beverage with up to 85 points based on appearance, taste, creativity, performance, garnish and how well the tequila was integrated. Each bartender had only 15 minutes to prep their ingredients and tools in the bar area and six minutes to make and serve five cocktails to the judges.
First up, Trey Callahan used tequila, agave nectar, muddled cucumber, passion fruit puree, mezcal and ginger beer in his “Smoking Mule.” Sweet and tart, there was also a smoky undertone thanks to the mezcal.
The next cocktail was the "El Santo Grial" (translation: Holy Grail) by Leslie Ross. This drink stood apart from the rest, with Thai and Indian ingredients including tamarind chutney, home-brewed blood orange ginger beer, cardamom and jasmine blossom. Bold and spicy, the Santo Grial complemented the flavor of the premium tequila rather than masking it.
The “Comilli” created by Luis Villegas is a mix of vanilla liqueur, Villegas' homemade tepache, a fermented pineapple drink with cinnamon and brown sugar, plus key lime and orange juices and a splash of ginger ale. Creamy yet citrusy (it tasted a bit like a modern piña colada, with a more restrained sweetness), the cocktail won over attendees who voted it people's choice, while the judges were impressed by Villegas impressive ability to shake four drinks at once.
Sheridan Fay's "Tesarosa" tasted similar to pink lemonade, only better. The recipe included tequila, house-made rose simple syrup, fresh soda, a few dashes of bitters and fresh lemon juice. The finishing touch? An aromatic swizzle stick with a rosebud on the end. Per Fay, "The swizzle stick is marinated in lavender spice for smell. Leave it in while you enjoy your drink."
And last, but not least, Matt Tanner's “El Rey's Stroll” was pleasing to both the palate and the eye. Made with fresh lime juice, tamarind syrup, cucumber agua fresca and mint in addition to the tequila, it was Tanner’s interpretation of the tasty and popular agua frescas found in Mexico.
In the end, it was Tanner who triumphed, earning the first-place prize. Villegas took second place while Ross came in third, according to the judges panel.