Monday, March 31, 2008

Booze and high altitudes

March 30

A low-frequency headache continued to thud in the back of my head. An 8 am flight from New York, a layover in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and a bumpy turbulence-happy plane ride later I found found myself in Vail, Colo. for The 2008 Mixology Summit sponsored by Grand Marnier and Navan. I wasn't incapacitated, but the altitude was affecting me in a slow nagging manner that was hard to ignore.

Headache, slight nausea and dry mouth. I already felt hungover even before a single drink had passed between my lips.

"Well, since I already feel like I've been through an all-night bender, I guess there's only one solution," I thought to myself. "I think I'm just going to drink until I conveniently forget how I feel."

And the Mixology Summit was the perfect place to do it. For three days, the Marriott-Vail Mountain Resort was overrun with mixologists who came from all over to demonstrate their drinks, ski, and drink. And you know you're going to be able to get a hold of something to drink with bartenders running around. The event provided a full bar with everything each participating bartender needed, from mescal and absinthe, to oranges and carrots. That didn't stop some people from bringing their own stash just to make sure they had everything they needed.

This year 300 bartenders and mixologists from around the country applied to be part of the summit. Participants were asked to submit four drinks using Grand Marnier or Navan as an ingredient. Out of the 300, 100 made it to Vail where their drinks are recorded for posterity's sake in video and/or photo form and their recipes bound in a large tome.

While the whole deal just sounds like a big excuse to get a bunch of bartenders together and hang out and drink at a picturesque ski resort, they are in fact working while they are here. It's legit. They fill out tax forms and everything.

"This isn't a contest," JC Iglesias, business director for Grand Marnier, told me as he busily fluttered around one suite where the lab was taking place.

I had walked into a consulting session where bartender Myong Park from the Drawing Room in Chicago was painstakingly demonstrating for the videographer how to make an orange peel garnish for one of his drinks.

The winners are actually working since they are consultants for Grand Marnier and Navan. They receive a consultant's fee, and though they have to pay out of their pocket for hotel and air, they can write it off on their taxes. The drinks are then used by Grand Marnier and Navan as part of their cocktail directory. This is useful for many reasons. For Grand Marnier and Navan, it's great to be able to show possible bar and restaurant clients how their products can be used, but also, JC explained that bars will sometimes contact them asking what cocktails can be made using such and such ingredients and the company can provide them with recipes or recipe possibilities using the database they've acquired through the summit.

The labs were a flutter of activity as bartenders were in and out, grabbing at bottles and asking for ingredients. The radio crackled through with requests for ingredients from other rooms and staff members zipped in and out.

Speaking of staff, the people helping with keeping the lab bars stocked and also mixing behind the bars for events included familiar faces such as Jim Meehan and Don Lee. I even got to finally put a face to Phil Ward who I'd only talked about or heard of like some mythic folk character.

The reception in the evening featured several cocktails from Mixology Summit alumni.

I got a chance to talk to Jacques Bezuidenhout who I'd only talked to on the phone previously for the interview I did with him when I was writing my NRN 50 story on cocktails as survivors.

I also got to meet Leo DeGroff again who pointed out we hadn't seen each other since when I visited PDT last year.

"But we talked on the phone, right?" I protested.

"No, no," he corrected me. "It wasn't even on the phone. It was email."

Oh, well, the important thing is we got to meet up. Right?

After several cocktails and generously poured champagne I witnessed people dancing to Skee-Lo. I wondered if that would be indicative of the rest of the three days I'd spend here.

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