The eighth annual Devour Bartending Competition was as exciting as it was chilly on Sunday, February 17.
This bartender challenge officially began the long-anticipated Devour Week, and was held at Portland Parkway Park (found in the little breezeway between FEZ and Found:RE where people try to parallel park). The day was gorgeous, if not a little blustery, and people started shuffling in wearing light coats and sunglasses and ready to day-drink a little after 3 p.m.
Here's how it worked: The competition was divided into three heats or rounds with three local bartenders each — seven men and two women total. No woman had ever won the title.
Judges chose a winner each round, and the three winners competed during the final, fourth heat for the Arizona's Star Bartender title. The judges were Arizona Republic food reporter Lauren Saria, New York-based bartender Andrew White (a.k,a. The Craftender), last year’s Devour Bartending Competition winner Shawn Campbell, and yours truly.
The shivering judges were pretty eager to get the first heat (if only) underway. And that’s when we got our first look at what Windsor bartender Samantha Hickman would be serving us.
The No. 93 was like a cloudy, pale-orange still lake served in a coupe cocktail glass. A copper drink stirrer pierced through two slices of what I thought were Cuties (they were) with each end dipped in chocolate. It was crunchy and sweet, and with three more heats ahead of me, I was grateful for the calories.
Ingredients included a very peppery Adventurous Stills Camelback Gin mixed with fresh pomelo and lemon juice, pink peppercorn syrup Hickman made in-house at Windsor, creme de cacao, creme de pamplemousse, chocolate bitters, and a drop of Patron XO cafe for aromatics.
I wanted to love Ian Anderson’s bright green mix dressed with a floppy basil leaf and named for a female companion of Butch Cassidy (yes, Etta Place). It was beautiful, but the No. 93, the judges agreed, was the first-round winner.
Heats continued and presented some amazing talent and beautiful cocktails. I forgot to stop myself from finishing Rico Miller’s (Ghost Ranch) pineapple vanilla concoction, and Colton Brock (Ladera Taverna y Cocina) put together something that looked like an Arizona wedding in a tall glass.
After naming three winners, the fourth round was starting, and the remaining die-hard attendees braced themselves for more wind and the final champion.
Hickman later told me she was worried.
This round required tequila, and she only found this out about 10 minutes before taking the stage. She thought she didn’t stand a chance, and was ready to graciously congratulate one of the other finalists.
“I’ve used tequila, but it’s not in my wheelhouse,” she said, “I decided I was going to go super-weird with it.”
Taylor Nunez (Joyride Taco House), Matt Minsky (Hula’s Modern Tiki), and Hickman took the stage.
She set to work on what became a still-untitled tequila Old Fashioned.
Their creations complete, the drinks were placed in front of us. Nunez had his mini-clothespin calling card, Minky the signature Polynesian mug, and Hickman her simple, orange-tinged elegance. We drank.
Hickman's drink was smooth, and not just because I’d had tasted nine drinks so far. It was 3 Amigos Blanco Tequila mixed with chocolate bitters, orange blossom honey, iconic spiced honey, iconic mesquite date, and a muddled orange. The rim was coated in flecks of salt and coffee bean (my favorite part). Finally, a dehydrated pineapple flower garnish gave it a flair, looking like a bird you’d see in a nature documentary only David Attenborough would narrate.
It was amazing. Hell, all the final drinks were. But a neighboring judge tapped his pen against Hickman’s rocks glass. This is it, he was saying (or so I remember). I was already there, and maybe the others were, too, but we all verbally agreed. Hickman was our winner.
Watching Hickman win the first heat was emotional enough. She was grateful, excited. She burst off the stage and into the arms of a congratulating audience member. Bam, off the ground. It was incredibly sweet.
So knowing she was about to win it all, I damn near stared at her — so excited to see her reaction. Her name rang out from the emcee, and in my memory, she dropped, holding her hands to her face, elated. A small group of people surrounded her on stage in a hug. I assumed they were coworkers, maybe friends, but they were obviously both.
She got a big check (like seriously, one of those Ed McMahon checks), and was all smiles. Though I admittedly bailed for hot soup somewhere indoors, I wanted to know what was going on in her head after she won all night.
So I asked her.
“I was just so happy,” she said, seated where else but a cushy booth at Windsor. “It was so much hard work.”
She’s referring to the hours spent, as in over 10 extra hours a week behind the bar at Windsor, creating the No. 93. She had taste-testers, ordered special glassware, even had a friend at the neighboring Churn helping her dehydrate and chocolate-dip the mandarin adornment.
As Windsor fans will tell you, most of the cocktails there are numbered. Hickman had to consult a master list to christen her drink with a unique number. She picked 93. Why? Her long-term boyfriend was born in 1993. “It was like my lucky charm,” she said. Her birth year, 1991, is currently in use.
This was Hickman’s first time competing in a bartender challenge. She first started tending bar at Whole Foods, where she says she learned all about beer and a little about wine. She then spent a few months at a sports bar, but quickly ditched it to start craft bartending at Windsor about three years ago.
Joining the Devour Bartending Competition as a contender was the idea of her bar manager, Jesus Restrepo. She said he knew how much she loved being on the other side of a stool, creating cocktails. Hickman is the kind of employee who would stay late or come in on days off to fine-tune a drink.
“He knew I would take it seriously,” she said, “and represent Windsor right.”
The inaugural Devour Bartending Competition was in 2010, and since then, each winner has been a male bartender. Hickman, in her first attempt, became the first female to earn the Arizona's Star Bartender title.
That excited her almost as much as winning. But mostly the whole experience made her remember how much she loves bartending. “Sometimes," she said, "when you get caught up in the service of it, you forget.”
Hickman said she sees more competitions in her future, and of course, a judge's seat at next year’s competition. For now, following a quick, four-day trip to Havasupai Falls, it’s back behind the bar at Windsor.
Exactly where she wants to be.