Also: Check out the Las Vegas Sun version of this story for a photo gallery.
By Andrea Domanick
It was a battle of the bottles Monday night as some of the best mixologists from across the country faced off in the national finals of the U.S. Bartender’s Guild Mixing Star competition at the Palazzo’s Azure Pool.
Seventeen mixologists, including two from Las Vegas, faced off in the competition presented by the guild and Disaronno. Participants went head-to-head to win a trip to Mumbai, India, where they’ll have the chance to appear in a Bollywood film. Finalists, who in preceding weeks competed in regional heats for a spot at Monday night’s finals, were judged on their original Disarrono-inspired cocktail and their showmanship behind the bar.
“There’s a lot of mixology competitions out there, and you can’t participate in them all, but this one really stood out because going to Mumbai is on my bucket list,” said Patricia Richards, master mixologist at Wynn Las Vegas and Encore. “It’s my one day off this week, and I wanted to make this happen. It took the whole day to prepare my outfit and presentation, but of course it’s worth it.”
Her cocktail, the Mai Chai, took a bit longer to prepare -- about two weeks to perfect. The drink is a delicate, spice-infused take on an Old Fashioned that includes a rare Indian single malt whiskey with a kumquat garnish. Such elaborate preparation extends to her presentation, as well: Decked out in full traditional Indian garb and makeup, Richards lit incense and blessed the judges and crowd with a namaste prayer, anointing all with a bowl of flower petals.
“I tried to create one of those little symphonies for the palette,” Richards says of her creation with the Italian liqueur. “I like to create cocktails that take people out of their comfort zones and that give guests a new experience. Because that’s what people come to Vegas for -- it’s about that wow factor we provide here.”
Up second-to-last was Vesper’s Roger Gross, who opted to keep things simple when it came to impressing the judges:
“With things like this, people get carried away, and there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, but I’m gonna be myself," he said. A bold move -- other competitors' presentations included being carried in on a chair or accompanied by scantily clad women waving signs of support. "I’m genuine, I can captivate a crowd just by being myself, which is what I enjoy most.” Not to mention another key factor: “And I created a great cocktail.”
Indeed, Gross let his charming, affable nature show through by engaging the crowd in a story while he deftly prepared the Chance Encounter, a smooth, creamy concoction accented with the piquancy of pineapple and cardamom (of the name, derived from its diverse flavor palette, Gross joked, “An Indian, a Caribbean and an Italian walk into a bar …”). It was easy to envision Gross in a Bollywood cameo, his disarming, spirited banter making for a perfect caricature of the comradely bartender who can listen to your problems and solve them with one of his concoctions.
Alas, both Las Vegans fell just short of first place; Gross was runner-up, with Julio Cabrera of Miami’s Sra. Martinez taking home the grand prize.
The evening’s amaretto creations were surprising in their diversity but not in their across-the-board quality, and their variety of flavors -- from sweet to tangy to smoky -- showcase the liqueur’s potential beyond its conventional role as a sweet aperitif. Lucky for locals and visitors, two of them can still be sampled by stopping by Richards and Gross’s nights at their respective bars; or, for those up for a challenge, try your had at the cocktails with the recipes below:
Roger Gross, mixologist at Vesper at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas
1.5 oz. Disaronno
1 oz. Zaya rum
1 oz. lime juice
3 cardamom pods
.5 oz caramelized pineapple puree
1 egg white
3 dashed Tiki Bitters
Muddle cardamom. Add rest of ingredients. Dry shake. Then shake with ice. Strain into cocktail glass. Garnish with 3 cardamom pods.
Patricia Richards, master mixologist at Wynn Las Vegas and Encore
1.25 oz Disaronno
.75 oz Amrut Indian single malt whiskey
.25 Amrut sherry cask single malt whiskey
.75 oz lemon juice
.25 oz agave nectar
1 dash angostura bitters
Combine all ingredients. Shake and strain into Old Fashioned glass with crushed ice. Garnish with kumquat and clove garnish.
Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.