People were beginning to stream into the room in droves. This was not to be a huge event, but attendance was expected to be in the hundreds.
“Should we start, like, mixing shit together?” I asked V., the competitor who was sharing my table with Z-Squared and me, as I checked the time on my wristwatch. V. runs Maduro on E. Main St. She’s awesome.
“Something tells me there’s not going to be a starter pistol.” V.’s drink was something that involved muddled chile peppers. It looked delicious. Looking around to the rest of the room, all the other competitor’s (I recognized each of bartenders as people I knew or had been previously introduced to) drinks appeared to be fancied-up riffs off of pretty standard cocktails. One guy carbonated his drink himself beforehand, literally bringing his own bubbles.
No one, to my knowledge, brought their own ice. Which, frankly, surprised me.
Not really knowing what else to do, I began to prepare my first batch of beverages for the approaching thirsty hordes. The first portion of the evening’s competition was for all of the guests to go around sampling each of the eight competing bartender’s drinks, voting on which one pleased their tongue the most. For every four cocktails that I made (each at about an ounce apiece) I drank one. You know, to ensure that my recipe was consistent. I was feeling more at ease in no time.
Z-Squared set upon the mountain of lemons at our disposal and started zesting away.
People approached our table, and I handed out my concoction and answered questions, making sure a thick layer of fragrant bullshit basted every singular word I uttered. The people seemed pleased with what met their taste buds. My anxiety gradually began to subside. The alcohol didn’t hurt.
“Mmmm,” admired one lady, as she took her first sip. Her ‘mmmm’ sounded sincere. “And what’s this called?”
“Thaddeus Tom,” I answered. “If I had to classify it, I’d say it’s kind of a dessert Manhattan of sorts.”
“Does the name refer to something historical I should know about?” the lady smiled.
“Oh, no. It’s just an old high school inside joke between me and some friends of mine,” I lied. The name, in fact, means absolutely nothing. With most of the drinks I come up with, the names I bestow upon them are just a random jumble of two or three words that make a pleasant-sounding combination when said aloud. But I always imply that the name comes from a ‘long story’ that I’m unwilling to divulge. Customers like that kind of shit, and I am happy to oblige.
As with a most events such as this, the crowd was split pretty evenly between two types of people: there are the people who show up to impress everyone else in the room with their self-proclaimed vast knowledge of spirits, and there are people who show up to get totally fucking faded.
“Very subtle use of your flavors,” commented one guy in a sweater vest, taking very serious, copious notes after sampling each of the contestant’s beverage inventions. “Surprisingly, nothing is overwhelming anything else in the mixture, and the citrus really ties the drink together nicely. Thank you.”
“Damn!” exclaimed Next Guy in Line upon taking hold of the small glass I offered him. He had a film of what looked like rheumy, translucent Jell-O covering his half-mast drunken eyeballs. “I could pound this shit all night, for sure! Danger!”
“I’m glad you dig it, man.”
One of the fine Vom Fass gentlemen who co-chaired the event approached me a moment later to alert me to the fact that I would be needed in the next twenty minutes for my turn in the head-to-head portion of the competition. Each of the bartenders were to face off in a bracketed one-on-one matchup where we’d be given fifteen minutes to create a cocktail using a full bar and one mandatory mystery ingredient. The drinks were to be judged by celebrity panel of Madison well-knowns. Evidently, Vom Fass was using the word ‘celebrity’ fairly loosely. I didn’t recognize over half of our supposed celebrity panel.
I was slated to go up against the guy who had won the Madison vs. Milwaukee Bartender Competition two weeks prior. This was also the guy who brought his own bubbles. I was not anticipating moving past the first round. He was intense.
“You look really good today,” I said to CV as we took our places behind our respective bars. This was our standard greeting.
“You look better, Mr. Hunt,” he returned, unpacking a literal carryon suitcase full of bar tools involving shakers, stirrers, and god knows what else.
“This isn’t a competition in looks,” I countered, taking note of my two tools, which consisted of only a measly Boston shaker and a citrus zester.
Our first round ‘mystery ingredient’ was a rose liqueur, which was nice and easy to work with. Within ten minutes of the allotted fifteen, I’d come up with a really nice whiskey drink that was comprised of bourbon, the aforementioned rose liqueur, elderflower liqueur, a few drops of orange bitters, and a dash of Peychaud’s Bitters, if I remember correctly.
Once we had completed our drinks, each of the participants were supposed to describe to the audience what’d we’d come up with in our fifteen minutes of frenzied mixology. I decided not to sugarcoat things. “I guess my drink is kind of Manhattan-like, if I had to pin it down to something like that. But knowing what flavors work well together and what don’t, I just poured different shit into the glass until it tasted good. Then I shook it gently like a wailing baby. And I think I kind of nailed it.”
Apparently, I did because, surprisingly, I won and advanced to Round Two where I was up against V., my former table mate.
Our mystery ingredient was revealed to be a chipotle chile cooking oil.
“And a what the fuck?” I muttered, turning towards V.
“Shot of Maker’s?” was V.’s response.
“Yup.” The shots were poured into our faces via fancy cocktail glasses, and we set to work.
In order to offset the quiet heat of the chipotle oil, I set about making a drink using soft, sweet flavors. What I came up with was a mixture of cherry brandy, coco liqueur, orange essence, and the chile oil.
“I had a bitch of a time getting that oil to emulsify,” I shared with the audience when it was my turn to describe my drink, elated that I was able to use the word ’emulsify’ in an actual, out-loud sentence.
My drink was good, but V.’s was better. Her’s involved setting lime wedges on fire. Needless to say, she won. It is difficult to compete with fire-kissed citrus.
“How’d you do, Buddy Peter?” asked Z-Squared when I got back to our table.
“V. beat me. She lit limes on fire.”
“So that makes you, what? Third place?”
“I guess so, yeah. Tied for third.”
“Dude, you just can’t get out of third place, can you?” It’s true. I always seem to wind up third. This is the way it has been for the entirety of my life.
‘So it goes,’ as it’s said.
I was notified during the final head-to-head round that Thaddeus Tom finished fifth overall in the first portion of the evening’s competition. Which made me happy. In my mind, fifth was a long way from last.
“So, do we need to do anything else?” inquired Z-Squared as we began to clean up our station.
“We need to go and drink some of that gin in the bar upstairs,” I answered. “This has been fun, but my brain is fried. I could use a drink that I don’t have to make for myself.”
“Good talk,” agreed Z-Squared. “Let’s get weird.”
And we did. Because it’s what we do.