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Shake up your summer with this stirring Houston bartender competition

Shake up your summer with this stirring Houston bartender competition

Ricky Gonzalez Hugo's
Ricky Gonzalez of Hugo's. Photo courtesy of Iron Bartender
Sarah Troxell Nobie's
Sarah Troxell of Nobie's.  Photo courtesy of Iron Bartender
Kristine Nguyen Nancy's Hustle
Kristine Nguyen of Nancy's Hustle.  Photo courtesy of Iron Bartender
Ricky Gonzalez Hugo's
Sarah Troxell Nobie's
Kristine Nguyen Nancy's Hustle

Cocktail lovers in Houston ought to be thrilled about the latest DIY cocktail crawl to hit the Bayou City this month. Through the end of June, drinkers can hit 20 different Houston bars, sip a specially created cocktail and vote for their favorite Iron Bartender.

Cut from similar cloth as its sister competition, Iron Sommelier (also the brain child of sommelier Sean Beck), showcases the talents of 20 bartenders working with 20 different spirits to craft cocktails that show off not only the spirit's flavor and depth but also their own personalities. It benefits the Periwinkle Foundation, a Houston charity that offers support, care, and activities for children with cancer and their families.

Throughout June, Houstonians can visit any of the bars with bartenders participating in the competition and purchase the cocktail they've created for it. One dollar of their purchase will be donated to the Periwinkle Foundation, and sippers can then go online and vote for their favorite bartender and his or her cocktail.

The three bartenders with the most votes will move on the finals of the Iron Bartender competition in September. On their first visit to a participating bar, visitors will receive a punch card listing all the bars and bartenders taking part. As they meander the city, sipping the different cocktails, they'll get a punch for each one they purchase. Anyone with 10 or more punches can enter a raffle to win tickets to September's finals.

"We have amazing bars in Houston," Beck tells CultureMap. "And those programs start with the amazing bartenders working here. We wanted to build something around that."

Participants in the event include CultureMap Tastemaker Awards 2019 Bartender of the Year, Sarah Troxell of Nobie's. Other CultureMap Bartender of the Year nominees include Anvil's Tommy Ho, Kristine Nguyen of Nancy's Hustle, Jessica Johnson of Wooster's Garden, and Lindsey Rae of Grand Prize. Other contestants include Hugo's Ricky Gonzalez, State of Grace's Ashley Rhoads, and a host of others. The full listing — along with their cocktails — is on the Iron Bartender website.

Beck says he began thinking about Iron Bartender a couple of years back. Iron Sommelier, which also benefits the Periwinkle Foundation, has become a must-attend event on the Houston social calendar, and Beck was looking for a way to showcase the work bars and bartenders were doing with craft cocktails.

For Iron Bartender, he reached out to friends and colleagues in the industry and set up a draft. There were 20 bartenders and 20 spirits. Each bartender got a draft number and then got to pick the spirit he or she wanted to work with, until all the pairings were made. 

"I was number five on the list, and I just kept crossing my fingers no one was going to pick Appleton," laughs Caitlin Vann, a bartender at Lei Low, who's competing. "It's great stuff, and I had this idea that I wanted to create something that fit the environment I work in [tiki drinks] but also make this really boozy cocktail."

Her entry, the Prime Minister, blends Appleton 12 Year rum with Giffard's banana liqueur, Lustau vermouth, Angustora bitters, and a lime coin.

"Banana is a note you find in a lot of pot stilled rums, and Appleton is a blend of pot stilled and column rums," Vann explains. "The drink is kind of  a take on the El Presidente. But Russ [Thoede, owner of Lei Low] pointed out in Jamaica, where Appleton is from, doesn't have presidents. They have prime ministers. So, that's how we named it. I'm really pleased with how it turned out."

Vann says after she went to the first meeting about Iron Bartender, she was sold on being part of it, liking the idea of working to help raise funds for the charity. That's also part of what drove Zach Hornberger of Miss Carousel to take part. 

"It's such a good cause," he says. "The Periwinkle Foundation helps families dealing with cancer to heal. I think that's so great."

For the competition, he created The Duke's Delight, using Caravedo Pisco as its base.

"I'd never heard of that brand before," he says. "So I thought it would be a fun way to challenge myself. And I like how Pisco feels light, with apricot or floral notes, but it's still a boozy spirit."

For the Duke's Delight, he incorporated the pisco with banana and coffee liqueurs and Manzanilla sherry. He was shooting for a South American theme, readily thinking that bananas and coffee come from the region. He admits it was a "stretch" for the sherry, which is Spanish, but liked how it worked together.

"The bananas we eat today are Cavendish bananas," he said. "The Duke of Devonshire liked them so much he had the plants imported to England to grow in his greenhouse. They traveled really well, and our bananas are descended from them. That's how I picked the name."

Beck loves seeing the creativity that the participants are putting into their drinks. And he thinks that the draw for drinkers isn't only that they can help a good cause but also use it as a chance to explore their city.

"Cocktail competitions take bartenders out of their environments, toss them into this situation where they're crafting drinks on the fly, and they ask judges to drink 20 cocktails; it's crazy. This allows people to see the bartenders in their bars, to check out the amazing work they are doing. And I hope it encourages people to go visit places all over the city, not just The Heights or downtown, because that's where they live or work."

The votes drinkers make on the bartenders this month will be used to crown the People's Choice winner, as well as determine who will go on to the final competition.

Thus far, everyone seems to be enjoying the spirit of Beck's idea.

"Iron Bartender is uniting all of my favorite people in friendly competition for a great cause," says Sarah Troxell of Nobies, who's crafted a drink called the Oaxaca Macha with a base of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, blended with lime juice, pineapple shrub, and saline. "I am excited to participate because it brings the community together, both behind and across our bars, to raise money together."

"This is going to be fun," says Beck. "And what better way to spend a hot month like June than going around Houston and drinking refreshing cocktails for charity?"

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For a full list of bars and competing bartenders, visit the Iron Bartender website.