In 1988, Tom Cruise poured a drink with his pelvis in Cocktail. The movie is a classic stinker, but it made a statement about what really goes into the glass. Muddling, shaking, straining and stirring (and tweezing ridiculous garnish) are performance art, and that artistry makes a simple beverage a memory.
I have the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild and Disaronno to thank for a reminder not involving Mr. Cruise and his legendary “moves.” The professional network and the sexy Italian liqueur partnered on a nationwide competition called the Mixing Star, and the final round happened this week at Palazzo’s stunning Azure Pool.
Thousands of hopefuls were whittled down to regional qualifiers in Miami, New York, Portland and LA, and judges looked for deliciousness, creativity and style in both the drink and the person mixing it. That’s because cocktails are about the experience, and because the grand prize is a trip to Mumbai, India, and a potential appearance in a Bollywood film.
Wynn/Encore Master Mixologist Patricia Richards could have Jai Ho-ed onto the set. Eyes dusted with dark purple shadow, flawless skin draped in gold and sari silk, she looked like she might burst into song and then share a long, wet kiss with some hunky servant boy. Instead, she soberly told me why Las Vegas, despite its glut of bartending talent, continues to be snubbed in best-of features by national media (I’m talking to you, Esquire).
“It might be that we get so much attention otherwise,” she said, adding that bartending’s intimacy and craft lend themselves more to cities that don’t oblige gazillions of drinkers every day. “It’s a different animal. But they should try to do what we do. They wouldn’t be able to keep up.”
Lucky for her competition—from LA, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Miami, Portland, San Diego, San Francisco and St. Louis—each of 17 gladiators had about 10 minutes to prep and present for a panel of judges that included USBG President David Nepove, Wirtz Beverage Nevada Beverage Development Specialist (and former Cosmo property mixologist) Andrew Pollard, and Disaronno’s U.S. Marketing Manager Effie Panagopoulos and National Ambassador Paul Sevigny.
Dressed for a cabaret number, Lauran September from LA’s Spare Room got carried in and greeted the panel, “Well hello, you fantastic bitches.” Joel Clark, the wiry star of St. Louis’ Sanctuaria, pumped up for his performance with Chopin, hugs from besotted fans and a snap of the elastic on his Superman underwear. A guy from Miami impressively strained over one shoulder while pretending to call his mom. There was a triple cocktail pour and a naughty nurse. Gimmicks were flying, quite literally in Richards’ case, as she showered the judges with petals through a haze of nag champa incense.
Her “Mai Chai” paired Disaronno’s nutty, spicy sweetness with two kinds of Amrut single malt whiskey, lemon juice, agave nectar and Angostura bitters, with a garnish of kumquat and clove. Nepove asked for a memory from her first bartending job.
“Being scared sh*tless,” she said, which got a good laugh from the audience, where Disaronno drinks were also flowing (especially because I kicked one over on a lovely woman’s leather bag). With Campari, grapefruit and lemon, the Sorrentine Punch was like drinking the summer sky.
Roger Gross of Cosmo’s Vesper Bar went second to last. Early in the night, I asked for his “flair” strategy, the bells and whistles (and pelvic pours!) he would spring on the crowd.
“What I really want to do is just be myself and be genuine. … My cocktail is the star. I’m the vessel,” he said, admitting with a laugh that just-inked additions to his tattoo sleeve might grab some attention.
He does believe in the ceremony of drink making and borrows from the Japanese style, from masters such as Hidetsugo Ueno. “At Tales of the Cocktail last year I got the opportunity to go to his seminar, and to watch him was utterly amazing, even just the way he carved ice,” Gross said. “It’s very romantic, very sexy, very fluid—no wasted movements.”
So was the performance by Gross, who told stories and cracked jokes just like he does five days a week at Vesper. His Disaronno-based “Chance Encounter” wove Zaya rum, lime, velvety egg white and Tiki bitters with cardamom pods ground into caramelized pineapple puree. Without any props (or wasted movements), he owned second place.
Only Miami’s Julio Cabrera was better, at least according to the judges. When I asked Gross why Vegas doesn’t get recognized for talents like him, Richards and so many others, he said it’s because there are so many. There is so much concentrated skill and passion that everyone forgets to notice. And our bartenders aren’t too proud to make a Red Bull and vodka in 10 seconds flat, though they live for the chance to pour more than booze.
“A lot of times I ask people, ‘How do I taste?’ That’s me in that glass,” Gross said. “I just poured my heart and soul.”