Last night, 18 of Phoenix and Tucson's best bartenders took to the stage at Sandbar in Chandler to compete in the Mai Tai Competition. The two winning drinks were chosen, along with their bartenders, to go to Kona, Hawaii to represent Arizona in the national Don's Mai Tai Competition, named after iconic tiki bartender Don the Beachcomber. Since the winner of the national event gets $10,000 and the title of world's best Mai Tai, on top of already getting to go to Hawaii, stakes were high. That means judging all 18 of the drinks was no easy task and I definitely learned a thing or two about drinking cocktails.
See also: How to Make the Perfect Mai Tai
Don't Swallow Giggle all you want, but if you're blowing through 18 cocktails, it's probably best to get a spit cup. Sure, you're drinking Mai Tais (or whatever else) mixed up by some of the most adept bartenders in the state, but that doesn't mean you actually have to consume them. Give the drink a good swish to taste it and then spit it out.
Aroma Matters One of the night's winners was almost knocked out of the running in my book because it just did not smell good. Michael Soo's cocktail was beautiful and among the best in terms of flavor. However, the egg white, which created a perfectly velvety smooth foam on top, also smelled, as fellow judge Jason Asher put it, "like a wet dog." Spritzing an aromatic liqueur over top of the foam is one way to beat the eggy smell associated with egg white cocktails. While aroma only counts for four points, it's the gateway sense to actually tasting the cocktail, especially with tiki drinks.
Presentation Can Put You Over the Top See this cactus-contained cocktail? Beautiful, right? Well it marked high, too, because presentation is the second highest scoring area, after taste. Unfortunately, this one tasted kind of like dried peanut shells to me, which might be due to the cactus rind it sat in, but it's hard to say. Either way, this drink did rank well, but the flavor ended up killing its chances in the end. However, some of the other drinks had an overly simple scored or (unfortunately Butane) charred lime on top. For tropical drinks you can kind of go crazy, so simplicity was downright disappointing at this event.
Creativity Isn't Necessarily Key With 38 total possible points, in this contest only seven were allotted to creativity. While having a unique and interesting drink will certainly put you over if you already have a delicious and decked out drink, it's not a good idea to sacrifice flavor to include a head-scratching ingredient.
Keep the Theme in Mind The two cocktails that had the best flavor, to me, for the night also basically couldn't win because they were a few too many steps away from being a Mai Tai to really qualify. Stephanie Teslar's drink screamed tiki from its classic mug to its crème of coconut and Pernod. Unfortunately, ingredient-wise it wasn't close enough to the competition beverage to really win out. That said, the winners of this competition will be going to a Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Competition and most of the competitors came in with a Trader Vic's style drink. That made it easier for me to forgive other drinks' indiscretions, but the other judges weren't there with me.
The Judges Can Kind of Tell Whose Cocktail Is Whose Oddly enough, I knew the moment I sniffed Micah Olson's cocktail that his Apri-Tai-Zer, which was one of the drinks that actually ended up winning, came from him. I also knew just by looking at Joshua James' cocktail, with its telltale Clever Koi style glassware, obviously spirituous "up" concoction, and simple garnish, that his was his. If it's that easy for me to differentiate, the other judges, who were pro-bartenders and have judged way more than two of these events, must've been able to tell a lot more of them too. Does that mean it's rigged? Maybe a little, but it's also unfair to penalize bartenders for having a clear style.
Balance Wins Over All You can have a crazy presentation that wows. You can use cutting edge, even weird ingredients that make your recipe look impressive. In the end, give me a drink that tastes good and isn't too heavy on one flavor profile or another. Some drinks of the night tasted like way too much rum (I called one a dive bar Mai Tai for that reason), while others were far too tart or too sweet. The best Mai Tai has bright, citric juice flavors, a spiced kick from the rum, and a round nuttiness from orgeat or Falernum. I'm really surprised more competitors didn't go for a take on the Don the Beachcomber recipe, which includes Angostura bitters. A dash of bitters would've likely balanced many of the overwhelming flavors in the lower-ranking drinks.
It Might Be More Fun To Watch than Judge Many of these USBG competitions are free for the public to attend. While judging has obvious perks like getting to try each competition drink, coming at each one from a critical standpoint kind of takes the fun out of it. Also, after reading the first item on this list, you know that judges aren't actually drinking the drinks, which also makes it less enjoyable when you find one you really like. However, the main reason to come to one of these things is to watch the intense, timed prep of each drink. It's usually a pretty great show, since bartenders are typically great at performing while mixing. Being cooped up in a corner out of sight or in a tent as a judge doing a blind taste test means you miss all of that action.
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In The End, Phoenix Is Going to Be Well Represented Regardless of which cocktails I think should've been put through, judging the event also means taking into consideration which two drinks and bartenders should represent our city in the Hawaii national competition next month. Michael Soo and Micah Olson's drinks will definitely be stiff opposition for other competitors, and I hope they crush them like the ice in a tiki drink.