Six mixologists, six chefs, one common ingredient: Maker's Mark bourbon.
Walking in to Branch Water Tavern for the first-ever Houston Chowhounds throwdown to include a drinks competition, the choice was immediate. One could hang a left and join the mini-buffet line of bourbon dishes from competing chefs, or go straight into the rear tent where six mixologists rotated into three stations to shake up some adventurous bourbon cocktails.
The winning strategy, of course, was to grab a couple cocktails and then balance them on the plate as you loaded up the rest with food. The cocktails required sipping — these weren't your grandpa's Makers on the rocks — each drink was surprising, inventive, even a little weird.
Houston Press blogger Katherine Shilcutt, a throwdown judge alongside longtime Press food writer Robb Walsh, Maker's Mark ambassador Hailey Harris, Spec's wine manager Bear Dalton, and Barry Maiden, chef/owner of Boston's Hungry Mother, spilled that each judge had a different favorite drink, but were eventually able to come to a consensus.
Along with Bill Norris's "Staat's Farm, October, 1989" with absinthe and a sprig of burned clove and sage, the gingery sweetness of BWT's Ryan Rouse's "Meet Your Maker" and Adam Bryan's Earl Grey-infused "No Bogey Fizz," the winning drinks seemed to have in common a freshness that lightened and complemented the rich liquor. Anvil's Matt Tanner took third with "Honey & Vinegar," Claire Sprouse of Beaver's earned second place with her complex and citrus-y "The Valley" and Hearsay mixologist Anthony Montz claimed victory with a refreshing take on a classic cocktail dubbed "Old Fashioned, New School."
When it came to the dishes, home court chef David Grossman took top honors for his playful bourbon "bacon and eggs," followed by 'Shroom Throwdown winner Rebecca Masson for her maple leaf ice cream sandwich in second and Mark Cox of Mark's American Cuisine taking third for his five-spice infused braised BBQ pork short rib sandwich.
But honestly, I didn't envy the judges in trying to rank the dishes. Bryan Caswell's 15-hour braised short rib was a hit amongst the crowd who didn't get the fancy plating the judges used in making their decision (along with originality, tasting, and use of the Maker's Mark bourbon). I also particularly enjoyed Mark Holley's beef short rib ravioli and Monica Pope's steamed pork belly bun.
Overall the Bourbon Throwdown was probably my favorite Chowhounds throwdown thus far, both because of the variety of ways the ingredient could be interpreted and because it recognized the mixologist's craft alongside the chefs.