When eight talented bartenders show up for a cocktail competition you can expect three things for certain: good drinks, professional pride and a hefty dash of showmanship. That’s exactly what Justin Siemer from Ración PDX brought to the bar during the Portland introduction of Roca Patrón Tequila on a sweltering sunny summer evening under the tent at the Jupiter Hotel.
The drinks were great, of course; Portland is blessed with some amazing talent behind the stick, and this relatively small town stands in the ranks alongside some of the bigger cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles when it comes to craft cocktails.
But being a great bartender requires more than just physical skills and creative mixology; a great bartender has to be a consummate showman, a presence, a personality. Flashiness isn’t a necessity; people don’t always trust flashy displays or insincere smiles. But letting them know that you’re good at what you’re doing and---more importantly---you thoroughly enjoy what you’re doing, that’s the attitude that impresses both the competition judge and the cocktail consumer.
Justin Siemer makes an impression because of his buoyant nature and friendly attitude. The grand mustachio doesn’t hurt either; it’s large, bushy, but carefully trimmed and meticulously waxed and curled, and makes a bold statement all by itself. But it’s the jubilant smile, the wicked grin, and the honest joy of being there that everyone remembers. Siemer, it seems to all who meet him, is damned happy to be doing what he’s doing, and to be making you a drink that will please you, impress you, and have you asking for another. That is why he’s there.
Justin brought a bit of what he’s doing at Ración these days to the competition. The attitude, yes, but he also brought an actual little bit of what Ración is doing these days: a large, glistening sheet of dark bittersweet Mexican-style chocolate.
As he began mixing up his cocktail entry, the Calientito Old Fashioned, he explained all the elements in a running commentary to the crowd. He also bantered with the emcee, Nic the Bartender Nye, without breaking his stride or losing his concentration.
He began with 2 ounces of Roca Patrón Añejo, from Patrón’s new tequila brand made in the old fashioned traditional style by pulping the slow-cooked agave in a pit under a giant rolling stone wheel to extract the rich, juicy aguamiel (honey sap) for fermentation and distillation. To that he added a ¼ ounce of his specially formulated Honey Gomme Syrup, made by blending a small amount of gum arabic with water, cooking and reducing down to a syrup while whisking in honey, to provide a rich sweetness and a little texture to the cocktail at the same time. To the tequila and honey gomme syrup he added 2 dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters and a single dash of Cinnamon Tincture, also hand-made. A tincture is a concentrated reduction of one ingredient made by, in this case, soaking a cinnamon stick in 4 ounces of high proof Bacardi 151 for two weeks.
After stirring with ice and straining, he poured the cocktail over a large, hard chunk of clear ice (he brought his own) in an old fashioned glass, and then added his own very special touch with a shard of the smoked chili-dark chocolate he had brought for garnish.
Visually striking, bright and aromatic, and arriving with its own dessert on top, the Calientito made a big impression. The jolt of agave spice was there, but since this was an old-fashioned the hint of wood and whiskey vanilla spice from the Añejo barrel aging was there as well, with the honey, orange and cinnamon playing excellent supporting roles. The pros in the audience were impressed as well, for they knew the drink was fairly simple and easy to make (a crucial consideration at a busy bar), with most of the prep, the syrup and tincture and chocolate giving it distinct character, done beforehand.
Then, cocktail complete, Justin jumped down off the dais, smiling his big smile, grabbed his own cocktail, and began partying down with the crowd, appearing as if that was exactly where he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do. Because he was.