Who would've guessed that the top two drinks of Tuesday night's USBG Most Imaginative Bartender Competition at the W Hotel, by significant margins, would both prominently feature turmeric? However, taking the sponsored spirit into account -- Bombay Sapphire -- the spice trade botanical definitely makes sense historically. Plus, it gave the drinks a unique savory element and a bright yellow-orange color.
All of those elements, and many more, are important in the competition that tests almost every aspect of competitive bartending from start to finish. And, Phoenix, after a near perfect technical show that was definitely an undertaking to judge for myself and the four other judges, we know who to cheer for in the Las Vegas national competition next month.
After about four hours with 11 bartenders competing one by one, The Parlor's Michael Allmandinger took home the Arizona trophy for the MIB competition in both people's and judge's choice categories. His drink, A La Russe, was an explosively flavorful mix of Bombay Sapphire, turmeric, Early Grey syrup, dry vermouth, and Grains of Paradise. Playing with flavors that Allmandinger typically features in his cocktails at his own bar, the drink was bitter, savory, dry, spiced, and smooth -- setting it far apart from drinks that relied too heavily on sweet and citrusy elements.
Flavor is just one component of this all-intensive bartending challenge. Allmandinger wowed judges with his showmanship and storytelling, selling the drink as an experience. He also only lost one point on his technical score, which means everything from neatness and spillage to bottle presentation and even little things like handling only the top third of bar tools and the bottom half of glassware handles was nearly perfectly executed. Allmandinger also won Devour's Bartending Competition this year with his Parlor Star cocktail.
Judging the event was no easy task, as there were more than a few standout entries. Layla Linn of the USBG judged technical performance, while Adrian Biggs of Bacardi and chef Beau MacMillan wandered around judging the entire experience. I somehow got the amazing opportunity to blind judge in a separate room with Tucson's Aaron DeFeo, who won the previous two years but graciously stepped down this year to give judging a shot.
Following Allmandinger, Crudo's Abby Martinie was in second place with a concoction that mixed turmeric, ginger, mint, and lavender into one coupe. It was aromatic and delicious -- definitely a strong contender and a close second. Rounding out third place, Jade Bar's tiki-loving bartender Robert Porter made a deeply complex and flavorful gin drink with strawberry, lime, and a syrup featuring the spices used in pho broth.
Truthfully, all three drinks really could have used help in the garnish department. Allmandinger and Martinie's drinks both relied too heavily on the wow factor that turmeric gives a cocktail's color, while Porter's odd glassware choice, not well strained cocktail, and single gardenia petal presentation didn't win him any points.
Garnish aside, Allmandinger's drink and his overall performance was the clear winner for the evening and put him through to the national competition in Las Vegas -- the very same competition Young's Market Company and ex-Jade Bar barman Jason Asher won in 2010 that put him on the map in a big way. That's because the winner goes on to compete in the world championship event and gets featured in GQ's "Man of the Year" issue.
While the featured issue does beg the question of what happens when a woman wins the competition nationally, as one almost did in Phoenix, it's time to root for Allmandinger to bring another national win to the state when he goes up against 27 other bartenders for the win. On September 9, the results of a bartending challenge will narrow the competition to 10 people and the following day competitors will make a signature drink in hopes of taking the title.
Good luck, Michael Allmandinger!