After more than three hours of mixing drinks at Proof Rooftop Lounge Tuesday night, the big moment arrived for 10 of Houston's best bartenders who were vying for the right to represent the Bayou City at the United States Bartender Guilds’s Most Imaginative Bartender Cocktail Competition in Las Vegas.
When judges selected Leslie Ross as Houston's Most Imaginative Bartender, she joyously burst into tears and dropped to the ground in excitement as the crowd cheered.
"I eat, sleep, and breathe cocktails and this is one of those moments when you put your heart and soul into something and it actually pays off," said Ross, who bartends at Triniti. "I'm incredibly thankful for the support and I'm extremely thankful for the bartending community. It wouldn't mean this much, it wouldn't be such a big deal if people didn't care."
"I eat, sleep, and breathe cocktails and this is one of those moments when you put your heart and soul into something and it actually pays off," said Ross.
The fun-and-friendly contest was a qualifying match for the national competition presented by Bombay Sapphire Gin and GQ magazine. Each contestant submitted a cocktail recipe, which was reviewed by the national president and vice president of the Bartenders Guild, who selected the 10 most imaginative recipes, explained Luis Villegas, president of the Houston Chapter of the USBG.
Judges Gary Hayward, the national Bombay Brand ambassador, Chef Phillipe Gaston of Haven Restaurant, and USBG "blind" judge Kris Sowell (unidentified to the contestants during the scoring) rated each bartender's cocktail based on the appearance, aroma, taste, and creativity of the drink. Throughout the evening, attendees were each given a gem, which they dropped into the vote boxes of their favorite bartender.
Jojo Martinez, owner of J Martini Services bartending business, won the People's Choice award for her "Gin Vickey!," a new twist on a Gin Rickey.The three-ingredient cocktail is usually made with lime, gin and carbonated water. Martinez combined Bombay Sapphire Gin, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, and marjoram syrup in a shaker before pouring it into a Collin's glass half rimmed with sea salt and topped with Topo Chico mineral water.
The judges preferred Ross' "Kipling Cup," a spin-off of a classic Pimm's Cup made with English cucumber, Pimm's No. 1, lemon juice, fruits, and herbs. Ross combined Bombay Sapphire Gin, House Made Pimm's No.1 Chutney Cordial and Darjeeling and Earl Grey tea in a shaker tin with ice and strained the concoction into a Collin's glass over ice, topping it with ginger beer and garnishing with a preserved Meyer lemon peel, cucumber ribbon, and candied hop cone.
The competition was anything but cutthroat as opponents cheered for each other when they were not behind the bar. Most of the attendees were fellow industry professionals, bartenders and friends.
Ross won an all-expense-paid trip to Las Vegas to represent Houston in the September competition against 27 other bartenders from across the nation for the chance to be featured of the promotional cover of GQ Magazine, a trip to the United Kingdom to participate in World’s Most Imaginative Bartender Competition, and bragging rights for themselves and their hometown.
"I honestly believe that this is my time and I'm bringing something to the bartending community and it's not just for me," Ross said. "It's something that I can bring back to Texas and back to my guild and restore my craft. Ultimately it's something that means that much to me and I care about it just like I would care for one of my children."
Villegas, who made an Osborne cocktail with gin, Rosemary Vermouth, lemon juice, and gum syrup, was second runner-up. "If you advance you're going to be competing with great talents from all across the country," he said. "It's a great opportunity to showcase what you can do. Here I am and I'm from Houston and I'm one of the best in the industry."