Austin mixologists compete in Manhattan Cocktail Classic

Jessica Sanders, owner of drink.well

It’s not exactly a completely male-dominated profession like NFL football or Chippendales dancing, but if you look at the most celebrated mixologists in town you’ll note that most are men. The tide is turning in Austin.

Two talented classic cocktail creators, drink.well owner Jessica Sanders and bartender Tacy Rowland, competed in the third annual Manhattan Cocktail Classic this weekend in New York. I guess we are maturing from a town with only tied t-shirt and Daisy Duke wearin’ bartenders slinging a shot and a beer to a town that embraces both genders making creative craft drinks.

To get a spot behind the bar in the national competition, both Jessica and Tacy won preliminary regional challenges. Contestants in in 29 local chapters of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) battled for a spot in the Manhattan Cocktail Classic mixing drinks with specific main ingredients. Participants are judge not only on the quality of their cocktails, but on service and elegant presentation as well.

Jessica competed in the search for the best aperitivo cocktail hosted Campari. The test was to create a before-dinner drink that contains at least one ounce of Campari and to use spirits from the company’s brand portfolio.

To add to the challenge, USBG guidelines forbid the use of house-made ingredients or anything that isn’t replicable. That removed several creative twists from the contestants’ bag of tricks and made them rely on other methods to make the spirits play well together.

Jessica relished the challenge of working with a bitter and sometimes intimidating spirit like Campari and upped the ante by choosing Scotch as the base spirit for her drink called the Civetta in Islay.

She said, “Both Campari and Scotch have overwhelming flavor profiles, so I added sherry to restrain the peatiness of Scotch and bitterness of Campari while allowing the integrity of the spirit to come across. My preference for cocktails is to have it so balanced that you can’t tell what’s in there. I think of this one as a twist on the classic pre-dinner drink, the Negroni. This is a sexy and alluring cocktail that will impress your date on a romantic night out.”

Did she succeed? Hell yes! This is no pre-dinner drink. It’s a pre-danger drink. I took one sip of the Civetta in Islay and muttered, “I have dirty thoughts,” when Jessica asked me what I thought. I could only give her a mischievous smile as I savored the smooth bitter sweetness. The Burlesque Bitters has a pepperiness that wakes up the palate and plays well with the orange sherry. I needed a moment. The drink isn’t on the menu, but drink.well offers it as a special for $12. Order it just to see Jessica in action — oh and to get that feeling you shouldn’t have in polite company.

Tacy tested her skills in Don Q Rum competition challenging USBG members to mix an island cocktail that embodies the spirit of Puerto Rico. About 20 bartenders competed locally to go on to the national competition in Manhattan and the top five finals winners will go to Puerto Rico to tour the distillery.

Tacy was eager to gauge her bartending skills in the Don Q 2012 Mix It Up Ultimate Mixology Challenge. She said, “I like to compete. It’s a great way to learn more about the cocktail scene and grow my skills.”

With strong competition, Tacy wanted to create a grown-up variation on a classic tiki drink with plenty of spice, which she called Espirita de Vida. She said, “The easiest way to make an island rum drink is put fruit and juice in a glass and call it fun. I wanted more depth and flavor, so I start with a Don Q Gran Anejo base. I then add two more types of rum and simple ingredients. The result is a balanced drink with an earthy tone from aged rum that you can enjoy outside on a summer day.”

Tacy’s drink is no sugar bomb with fruit flavors that boost the rum rather than obscuring it. It’s both elegant and clean and with the smoky caramel gusto that will appeal to whiskey drinkers. Tacy whipped the mint, ground the cinnamon and sprayed the Absinth for absolute freshness of flavors. The drink is served over crushed ice in frosted glass that brings the refreshing and clean cocktail to life. I was immediately transported to a beach, listening to the surf and feeling the sea spray. Can you put a little lotion on my back?

While Jessica and Tacy won the regional shows, neither placed in the national competition. Despite that, they showed that there are top-notch female bartenders in Austin worthy of the national stage. They also learned a lot about the importance of “Bring It On” style at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic and can’t wait to bring it next year.

Here are the recipes so for you to try your hand at making the regional winning cocktails.

Civetta in Islay: Jessica Sanders, Winner of Campari regional competition

  • 1 oz. Bowmore 12 Year Single Malt Scotch
  • 1 oz Campari
  • 1 oz Duque de Carmona Orange Sherry
  • 2 drops/dashes Bittermen’s Burlesque Bitters

Espirita de Vida: Tacy Rowland, Winner of Don Q Rum regional competition

  • 1 oz Don Q Gran Anejo
  • 1/2 oz Don Q Anejo
  • 1/2 oz Don Q Cristal
  • 1/2 oz Maraschino Liquour
  • 1 oz grapefruit juice
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • Fresh grated cinnamon
  • 2 dashes Bitterman’s Tiki bitters
  • Spray of Tenneyson Absinthe Royale

This article first appeared on CultureMap.

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Matt McGinnis

As a marketing strategist for Pen & Tell Us, Matt McGinnis provides marketing, branding and communications counsel to food and beverage as well as other clients globally. He is also an avid beverage enthusiast, chronicling his interests as a Food & Drink contributing writer for CultureMap, as the Food & Drink columnist for Austin Man Magazine, and as a blogger for What Are You Drinking?. He is passionate about the wine industry having previously worked at a winery in Oregon and in wine sales. He has served as Guest Host of Sommelier Cinema at the Alamo Drafthouse, and is a Certified Sommelier in the Court of Master Sommeliers. His writing has been recognized as a Top 10 Food Blog by the Austin Chronicle in 2013 and 2014, with a 2011 Texas Social Media Award from the Austin American-Statesman.

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