Sunday, April 5, 7:45 p.m.
I’m in the door one minute, maybe two, before being handed the first cocktail of the evening: a smoked margarita bringing together Don Julio Blanco tequila, agave syrup, freshly pressed lime juice and Tobala Mezcal. And, of course, Grand Marnier.
They call it Grandma, Grandma 100 (Cuvee Du Centenaire), Grandma 150 (Cuvée Speciale Cent Cinquantenaire) … Grand Marnier—that much-revered liqueur which since 1880 has been bringing together orange and cognac—and its cousin, Navan natural Madagascar vanilla cognac liqueur, will factor heavily, if not ubiquitously, into tonight’s beverage menu.
Over 800 bartenders applied, submitting four cocktails each for a seat at the three-day 2009 Grand Marnier & Navan Summit in Vail, Colorado, with beverage expert Steve Olson of AKA Wine Geek and a host of Grand Marnier and Navan reps and ambassadors for three days of collaboration, celebration and snow sports.
In the high-ceilinged Donovan Pavilion, Grandma is flowing like water. Behind the glowing square bar, Olson and his AKA Wine Geek crew of Andy Seymour, Jacques Bezuidenhout, Leo DeGroff, Willy Shine and Aisha Sharpe (who created the opening cocktail menu for Tao Beach), as well as guest Geeks including Vegas’ own Anthony Alba (Liquidity Global beverage consulting) are churning out eight cocktails, including Alba’s Perfect Storm, Sharpe’s Savory Sage Cocktail and Olson’s Fairy Grandmother, which is, in its simplicity, perfect.
Making the rounds are Francesco Lafranconi (Southern Wine & Spirits), Sean Bigley (Bellagio), Daniel Gonzales (Nora’s), Patricia Richards (Wynn), Alex Velez (Club 2100), Amanda Gager (Stripsteak) and five others.
Just 29, Gager is in the minority, as only a handful of ladies are in attendance. The cocktail that got her here was inspired by Repeal Day (December 5, celebrating the repeal of Prohibition), as well as by the December 8 submission deadline. Her Repeal This cocktail starts with pumpkin puree, Basil Hayden Bourbon and Grand Marnier, and is topped off with Speakeasy Brewing Company’s Prohibition Ale. In a fashion befitting the Summit, Gager tried all her creations on her own grandma before submitting her application.
Like many other attendees, Gager made at least one drink that called for egg whites. A simple bar trick for putting a supple yet sturdy, frothy head on a cocktail, egg whites went slightly out of vogue when artificial frothing agents came on the market. But today’s trend of returning to bartending’s roots means that Gager’s combination of Partida Blanco Tequila, Campari and Grand Marnier, mixed in equal parts with egg whites, lemon juice and simple syrup, did the trick, earning her a coveted seat at this bar.
Also prevalent this year, according to the reps who had to pour over the hundreds of applications were pisco, sherry, smoked cocktails, ginger, apples, and homemade syrups, bitters and infusions. In some cases, the judges had to argue for a bartender’s inclusion. “It nearly came to blows,” reported one rep.
“How ya doing?!” someone inquires of Olson, not accustomed to seeing him actually tend bar.
“Terrible. I hate this,” he says, obviously kidding. He’s glowing, grinning from ear to ear as he pours out a simple concoction of Don Julio 1942 tequila, Grandma 100 and Fee’s orange bitters in a Kübler absinthe-rinsed glass. “I’ve got so much [Don Julio] 1942 I don’t even know what to do with it.” Heh heh, I do! I steal away with yet another shot, sipping it reverently; I know these bartenders’ stats like a 10-year-old knows the members of his favorite baseball team.
Correct glassware is becoming scarce. “Hold on to that shot glass,” warns Summit veteran Sean Bigley. “They run out every year.” Mind you, it’s all of 10:15 p.m. At this, DJ Mo Rockin’ takes the party in the ideal direction, throwing on “Tequila” while Olson doles out more 1942.
Jamie Foxx sings, “Blame it on the a-a-a-a-a-alcohol” while Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle works the dance floor as only the great-granddaughter of Grand Marnier founder Alexandre Marnier Lapostolle can. Those not dancing alongside the polished bonne vivante (now wearing Alex Velez’s porkpie hat as she gets “low low low”) are watching her. She pulls me in, but I demure, “I don’t really dance!” With a glorious honeyed French accent, she bandies back, “Neeezzzer do I!” Well, all right then. So I cut a brief rug with our gracious hostess. “I’m kinda buzzed and it’s all because/This is how we do it.” I sing along, carefully noting the irony.
I make a third pass by Olson. And then a fourth. “Well, enjoy your last night in Vail,” says the text from a colleague back in Vegas, whom I have been regaling with tales of shitfaced shenanigans all night long. Silly goose, this is just the kick-off party!