I met beverage maven Mariena Mercer in 2009 at Sonrisa Grill’s Margarita Festival held at Lake Las Vegas. The event has grown over the years, much like Mercer’s career and clout, and after taking top honors at the festival six years ago, Mercer now goes by the well-earned title of Tequila Goddess. This year, she hosted the competition at her current beverage playground: the Cosmopolitan.
Now known as the Original Margarita Festival, this year’s contest featured entries from bar staff at venues like Cosmo’s Vesper Bar, Palazzo’s CarneVino, Downtown bar Velveteen Rabbit and retro restaurant Herbs & Rye. Entrants submitted their margarita recipes and were randomly assigned a specific tequila or mezcal closer to the event date.
A panel of tequila specialists judged the cocktails, selecting three duos to compete in an Iron Chef-style battle using Herradura tequila, various provided ingredients and Bunny Yuzu sake. With bragging rights, a chance to impress margarita legend (and judge) Julio Bermejo and a trip to Mexico on the line, finalists Edward Gunn and Trey Picou from Wayfarer Bar, Adam Rains and Jason Reyes from CarneVino and People's Choice winners Nate Prost and Kendra Stephens from Boulevard Pool did battle.
The winning creation: Gunn and Picou’s Miss Blyden’s Margarita, a complex cocktail featuring El Jimador Reposado, cactus pear juice and toasted tomatillo and cilantro gastrique. Upon hearing they had taken the top prize, the men leapt into each other’s arms.
For the People’s Choice winner, the crowd selected the duo with home court advantage, Prost and Stephens, for their She Loves Me Not cocktail. It featured the tastiest rim of the night—salt and crushed sunflower seeds—and utilized Tanteo Jalapeño Tequila, lime juice and pineapple puree for a sweet, salty and spicy drink.
Though not finalists this year, other standouts included the impressively balanced honeydew and habanero-forward J&J Spicy Honey Brown Margarita by Jaime Cooper and Joe Meyer and Seasonal Fruit by Jason Hughes and Randy J. Sejba, which highlighted the smokiness of mezcal with sweet black currant and an unexpectedly delicious sweet and spicy seafood seasoning rub.