The fifth annual Devour Bartending Competition on Sunday sought to showcase some of the Valley's best bartenders and their creative cocktails, and we certainly had some unique ones. Although the competition portion only spanned 10 minutes, the two hours of milling and mingling at Crescent Ballroom with ounce-and-a-half cocktails in hand gave attendees the opportunity to meet the mixologists and talk technique. While our pick, the people's pick, and the judges' pick all would've yielded different results, only one bartender was crowned, though several cocktail-centric superlatives were handed out as well.
With the first hour or so of the event dedicated entirely to the crowd getting a chance to taste the competing drinks, enthusiasm for craft cocktails ran high. We spotted a Fernet Branca T-shirt in the crowd and even a couple shots of the pungent stuff, which wasn't really a surprise with so many mixologists in one place. By 2:40, one attendee suggested to her friend that they all get tattoos. We're not sure what it is about cocktail samples, but this sort of silliness seems to happen at every mixology competition.
Regardless of all that, the competition began with Matt Tobey of the District, Richie Moe of The Gladly, Evan Gibbs of Maizie's, and Ryan Richardson of Kazmiriez up to the cocktail shakers first. With five minutes to make four craft cocktails, some scrambled to finish and others leisurely showboated their way through the round.
Judged by Jason Asher of Young's Market, Layla Linn of the Arizona Bartending Guild, last year's winner, Kyle Landry, and New Times marketing director Jessica Hill, it was Richie Moe's AZian Fuzion cocktail, a complex, technique-driven drink, that took top honors in the first round -- to almost no one's surprise. His drink, which was fruity, sweet, and herby, combined monkey-picked Oolong tea-infused Desert Dry Gin, lemongrass, and ginger syrup, Dai Dai bitter orange, lemon juice, lemongrass and lemon foam, mango foam, salted deep fried citrus, and pomegranate-stained carbonated finger limes -- try saying that 10 times fast. While we appreciate Moe's ingenuity, we thought the barrel-aged, incredibly smooth, smoky, and sweet cocktail from the District's Matt Tobey had better flavor.
In the second round, Jax Gonzales of Phoenix Public Market Café, Manny Pena of Windsor, Michael Allmandinger of The Parlor, and Joshua James, who competed for The Parlor last year but represented Clever Koi this year, battled it out to both be the best in their group and better than Richie Moe's for the win. Joshua James went a similar route as Moe's cocktail, but instead featured Oolong tea-infused Copper City Bourbon and Dai Dai. Though they both used two of the same ingredients, the end result was completely different, especially since James' habanero shrub added a subtle spiciness Moe's didn't.
Though Gonzalez and Pena both made tasty drinks worthy of a spot on any cocktail menu, Michael Allmandinger of The Parlor won the round with his Parlor Star. The botanical kick from the thyme-infused Desert Dry Gin and Génépi, the velvety texture from the egg white, and the bitter components from grapefruit juice and an Angostura mist made the cocktail completely unique, as most of the other drinks were either mostly sweet or sour in flavor. The design atop the egg white foam from the bitters sprits was a simple, swank alternative to the typical citrus peel or fruit garnish.
Before the ultimate winner was announced, smaller awards were given out. Matt Tobey won best dressed and Manny Pena's carrot-top ice cubes earned him best garnish. Richie Moe won best presentation for his ostentatious, complex, and colorful cocktail display, as well as best performance and people's choice. However, it was Michael Allmandinger's herbal cocktail that won the judge's pick and earned him the title of bartender of the year. While we totally see why he won, with exceptional technique and one of a kind flavor, we do think other cocktails were more pleasurable to drink.