When considering a gin cocktail, a person might order a martini or a gin and tonic. More devoted cocktail fans might select a Negroni or a bramble. But when a bartender is asked to make a gin cocktail — specifically, an imaginative cocktail — the results are can be surprising and even delightful.
Popular gin brand Bombay Sapphire fosters that sort of creativity with its prestigious Most Imaginative Bartender competition. Now in its ninth year, the contest attracts top talent who want to win a trip to Las Vegas to compete in the national competition and be featured in GQ magazine.
On August 12, the contest held its Texas finals at the Nightingale Room. Two Houstonians, ice chef Hope Clarke from The Commoner/The Boulevardier and bartender Chris Morris from Radio Milano, competed against bartenders from Dallas and Austin. While elements like Clarke's curry-flavored ice impressed the judges, it would not be enough to win.
"I think it still has some work to do before it’s fully ready, but it’s a competition I love. I think it’s a drink that can stand out."
That honor belonged to Justin Lavenue from the Roosevelt Room in Austin. For his entry, the bartender drew inspiration from Vincent van Gogh's "The Starry Night" for a cocktail he named "L'Etoile de la Nuit." Built around a martini, the cocktail incorporated a house made dry rose vermouth, absinthe, unripened blueberry juice, charcoal powder and foie gras-washed French elderflower liqueur. He garnished the cocktail with tarragon-infused olive oil that had liquid gold homogenized into it.
"Every element was French-inspired to go with that French theme of his painting," Lavenue said. "To represent the wind rolling over the hills of San Remis, I did unripened blueberry juice, because the hills are blue. It adds a crisp acidity to the drink. Charcoal powder turns the drink jet black; Van Gogh used to use charcoal as opposed to paint when he was really poor."
According to Treadsack bar director Leslie Ross, Lavenue's combination of story, technique and execution helped him stand out with the panel of judges that included her, local bartender Hal Brock and two others. "He took a different angle than most of the other contestants, but what he brought to the table was an explanation," Ross said. "Something that was well planned, well thought out and well executed."
Ross, who represented Texas in the competition last year and finished in the top five nationally, thinks Lavenue has the skills to win. "He’s going to bring it home to Texas for the first time. I’m absolutely going to bet on that horse."
How does Lavenue feel about his chances? Could he be the first Texan to win?
"I really hope so," he said. "I’ve been working on it quite a bit. I think it still has some work to do before it’s fully ready, but it’s a competition I love. I think it’s a drink that can stand out."