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When cocktailers compete, everyone wins

Don Q Grand Anejo
Don Q Grand Anejo

I’m not sure when it happened, but sometime in the course of the past year, I’ve become a veritable cocktail groupie. Like, seriously a groupie. Like, maybe that person the bartenders whisper insults about at the quiet end of the bar because she can’t take the hint that she spends a little too much time haunting their establishments.

Hold on, I can explain. Cocktails are a blend of my two worlds (food and alcoholic beverages) with some extra special element of knowledge that I cannot and will not surmount because I’m afraid the magic will go away. Great mixologists think about drinks the way chefs think about food. There’s a balance element involved. There’s knowledge of the way certain spirits will combine. Presentation isn’t ignored. Every detail is important. And evolution is always possible. And because of that, somewhere during my dining tenure, I’ve come to view my favorite bartenders as the sexiest people on earth, emanating an air of cocktail knowledge mystery that makes me like a kid on her 4th birthday, clapping her chubby little hands gleefully, each time an up glass or a rocks glass plops down in front of me.

While it’s most delightful to see mixologists in their own spot, cocktail competitions offer a unique chance to see a group of these majestic members of Denver’s gastronomic scene at the same time. These events pit bartender against bartender to duke it out with a common spirit; the final product is judged for taste, garnish, smell, color, and mixing technique.

It’s more than just bragging rights at stake. Mixologists are almost always gunning for a first place finish that oft includes a trip to a coastal city for a national competition.

I was recently privy to the front row at a Don Q cocktail competition, where 8 of the Front Range’s best bartenders combined Don Q rum with a multitude of other elements, like blood orange, Thai basil, and a house-made cider reduction. The concoctions were poured into deliberately chosen glassware and garnished with something like a single leaf or an intricately designed apple-clove flower, becoming little works of art to be enjoyed by a panel of judges (and willing spectators).

Players mix their cocktails in front of a judge who’s counting points based on industry-standard skill, and there’s all the action of any spectator sport: a clock countdown, the drama of a late finish, and nervous performance under intense scrutiny and pressure.

After all was said and done, Don Q’s competition ended in a tie between Tag’s Noah Heaney, who’d played on apple cider with his drink, and Colt & Gray’s Kevin Burke, who’d twisted the classic Presidente sipper. First place was determined in a mix-off. Burke and Haney were given Don Q, grapefruit juice, and seven minutes to execute something on the spot. Both delivered, but Heaney took the prize and the ticket to New York.

I credit cocktail competitions for propelling the rise of the classic bar and putting the Front Range on the mixology map. Everyone wins here; competition inspires each competitor to get better and more inventive in his or her home bar. And for the public, these events constitute a fun way to spend an evening. Not only is it an excuse to drink, it also exhibits a broad sampling of Denver’s dining culture. A chance to see this many major gastronomic players together in the same room means cocktail competitions are great for groupies and cocktail-curious diners alike.

Competitors at Don Q:
Bryan Dayton, Frasca
Adam Hodak, Osteria Marco
Amanda Olig, Vesta Dipping Grill
Randy Layman, Vesta Dipping Grill
Parker Raney, Colt and Gray
Brian Joolson, Zolo
Noah Heaney, Tag
Ryan Layman, Steuben’s Food Service
Kevin Burke, Colt and Gray
Nate Wyndham, Blondie’s

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