I recently helped judge the Becherovka competition at Villains Tavern along with Dan “The Imbiber” Dunn and Zahra Bates who manages the bar at Providence. The local chapter of USBG put out a call to bartenders to mix it up. The winner got the admiration and love from fellow bartenders. It was organized by LA chapter president Marcos Tello who based the competition on previous ones he organized for Chartreuse and Bols Genever. We started out with 16 bartenders from some of the best bars in LA whittled down to 8 then 4 then the final 2. We saw LA’s best bartender Justin Pike (The Tasting Kitchen) competing along with 3 bartenders from the Varnish; Eric Alperin, Chris Bostick, Devon Tarby, plus Kate Grutman (Sotto), Cooper Gillespie (Thirsty Crow), Vincenzo Marianella (Copa d’Oro), Jason Bran (Roger Room), Garrett McKechnie (1886), Dave Kupchinsky (Eveleigh), Kenny Arbuckle from La Descarga, Dave Whitton from Villains Tavern and more.
After some great food from Villains (I’m in LOVE with the grilled cheese!), we were seated upstairs while the bartenders were shaking things up on the side bar. It was a blind taste test which was better for everyone and we (the judges) weren’t biased.
The twist to the competition was incorporating ingredients from the farmers’ market. There was coconut, grapes, passionfruit, cherries, cherry tomatoes, fig jam, grapefruit soda and lots more.
Becherovka is a spicy liqueur that has over 30 ingredients. I first had it at Playa and have seen it at various Speed Rack competitions. To me, it taste like Christmas and so I tend to think of it as a warm cocktail- maybe punched up with whiskey. The first few drinks we tried were more tropical in flair and probably because of the secret ingredients such as mango. There was a lot of citrus going on. Zahra thought bartenders were going for sours and using the Becherovka like a pimento (all spice dram). I found them somewhat tiki like especially the drinks come with lots of packed crushed ice.
Being a brown, bitters, stirred girl I was really excited whenever I saw a brown drink in a coupe. It’s funny to later hear from one of the bartenders that he scraped two versions of the above sage cocktail and went with “lots of whiskey.” It would seem he agreed there was a lot of citrus in the rounds.
For the most part, I agreed with Dan and Zahra on the drinks. We compromised sometimes though. There was one drink that used grapefruit soda and while I loved both, one used some sort of sherry that I just loved but then again, I’m into sherry cocktails. The other was completely and utterly wonderful but it wasn’t as thought-provoking. I described it as something I’d drink all night but if I wanted just one memorable cocktail of the evening, I had to go with the other. I think I persuaded my fellow judges on that one.
In one of the final rounds, we were torn about the grapes. The one with the ice was served without a straw. We were told to drink it but the lime pulp got in our way and no one wanted to think about what happened when we got to the end of the drink. I asked for a straw. And you know what? I didn’t like it as much! The bartender was right in this case. But ha ha on them, we smashed down the ice and then drank it from the glass. Aha, it works that way as well.
The last two of the cocktails arrived. The final round came down to Joe Parelli of Neat and Dave Whitton of Villains Tavern. After some deliberation, we chose Dave’s cocktail. I recently met Joe at Neat and he told me he just moved to LA. In SF, he would compete in competitions and always traded the first and second spots with one of his good friends up there. It is bittersweet that Dave, our hometown hero, won.
It was a great competition and it was nice to see some of LA’s best bartenders having fun.
Check out Dan’s podcast about the event here.
For more pictures, check out my flickr set.