Awakening from slumber filled with images of cool water that is always just beyond reach, I squint to decipher the glaring red numbers on the alarm clock: 5:34. The buzz of infomercials resonates through the room. Where am I? Coming to, I realize that I’m home; I have survived. Not the Hunger Games—Round 1 of the cocktail games.
Over the course of two days, 24 contestants gather at Southern Wine & Spirits to compete in the local semifinals of the sixth annual Nation’s Most Imaginative Bartender Search, presented by the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) and GQ magazine. Each bartender is to present a unique recipe using Bombay Sapphire.
It works like this: In one room each bartender has 15 minutes to set up, create and clean up a libation beneath the watchful eyes of USBG Nevada Chapter President Armando Rosario. He rates each performance on technicality, including ice handling, bar tools, spillage and garnish neatness, per the guidelines of USBG.
In another room are the judges: Ray Srp, Bacardi USA portfolio mixologist; Teresa Richardson, USBG national programs director and myself, as a voice of the people. We score each cocktail on practicality, taste/aroma and appearance. We can’t see the bartenders, and they can’t see us. To keep the playing field level, we have no idea who made each cocktail.
Every 20 minutes a dashing gentleman named Derek in a white polo places a new cocktail before us from a silver tray. It’s my first Bombay Sapphire competition, and my nerves are running high. I take a deep breath and tell myself to focus before getting into the swing of things. Perhaps it’s my increasing blood alcohol level, perhaps it’s the excitement of being in the company of fellow cocktail “snerds”—defined by Srp as a snobby nerd (you know you’re a cocktail snerd when you can pinpoint that the quarter-ounce of lemon is throwing off the balance)—whatever it is, I’m convinced: Being a cocktail judge is the coolest job on the planet.
There are two things to consider when judging cocktails: Would I order this drink? Would I finish it and drink another? If the answers are yes, proceed. A drink might be good, but what makes it exceptional? For some, it’s about creating a cocktail that celebrates and enhances the exotic botanicals inherent in the gin; for others, it’s that extra special attention to detail in the garnish; and for others, it’s a killer start-to-finish flavor profile that creates a heightened euphoria like none other.
In the end, nine bartenders from Vegas join one contestant from Reno to compete in the local finals, which will take place August 28 at the Villas at the Mirage. The stakes are high: Win the local finals and advance to compete at nationals for the prize of a lifetime—the cover of GQ, hosting VIP parties, travel and becoming an honorary Bombay Sapphire brand ambassador. Unfortunately, there is only room for one victor. So, dear contestants entering Round 2, may the odds be ever in your favor.
Local finalists (in no particular order)
Lance Voth, Bellagio Hotel: Greenteani
Roger Gross, Vesper Bar: Enchanted Garden
J.R. Starkus, RM Seafood: Indian Whisper
Jessica Fesler, Double Helix at Town Square: The Sapphire Summer
Lazaro R. Sardinas, Culinary Arts Catering: Body & Soul
Jeremy Taylor, Carnevino: Sapphire Sugarbox
Jozef Letasi, India Masala: Snake Charmer
Nathan Greene, RM Seafood: The Gallivanter
Rustyn Vaughn Lee, USBG: The Hampshire Cress
Ashton Pike, Atlantis Resort & Casino: Kona Breeze