I didn't know that Madison Square Garden had that Club area going on. When I first heard about the competition being held there, I imagined it was going to be some caged arena match, which would have been AWESOME. Instead it was held in a sort of steakhouse meets clubhouse setting.
The competition area was set up in a sunken area a couple of steps down from where the main bar was located. In a little dining nook tot he left of the competition area, the contestants were busy making any last minute changes.
Each contestant would have to make a total of six cocktails in 10 minutes. Three of one of the cocktails they submitted and three of another cocktail they created using a secret ingredient they received that day. Besides taste, skill would also be included in the judging process. Contestants went two at a time, each with a judge observing them and their presentation.
Out of the 10 contestants scheduled to compete, nine showed up, so Pichet Ong went first on his own. It came right down to the wire with his two cocktails. The first, his tall drink submission, the Late Night Blush. Even though there were tables filled with numerous drink ingredients, from fresh fruit, to one full of Marie Brizard's product line, contestants could bring whatever they needed to make their cocktails. Pichet brought the mint ice he created for the Late Night Blush. Water, Marie Brizard Creme de Menthe, and mint leaves frozen in a shallow pan were broken up to created the jagged flavored ice pieces.
Ice actually ended up being a pretty big deal for some of the contestants. While a large bowl filled with what looked like your usual catering ice was available, some people lugged in their own ice of varying size.
Some tried to create three cocktails rather than two in the time allotted. Tony Perez of G in Philadelphia and Eben Freeman of New York's Tailor both did exactly that.
One of Eben pulled the Creme de Cacao as his secret ingredient, so he made his South Central that uses a mole tincture.
Dona Maria mole sauce is dissolved in vodka, but the resulting liquid is more of muddy slurry, so a technique called gelatin clarification was used to refine it. You mix gelatin into the liquid you wish to clarify, freeze it, and allow it to drip through cheese cloth. However, for this tincture the freezing process had to be different. Eben told me that Tailor chef Sam Mason pointed out a hitch in his plan: alcohol doesn't really freeze. This ended up only being a minor roadblock since they figured out they could use liquid nitrogen to freeze the mixture for the gelatin clarification process.
The mole tincture has a sesame flavor in the middle and ancho on the finishing, which Eben said are defining characteristics of mole sauce.
Miguel Aranda, bar chef at the Plaza Hotel, and Don Lee of PDT were next. Miguel's two submitted cocktails were named the Clovis and Clotilda, named after the Frankish king and his Burgundian wife. A delightfully nerdtastic naming convention that I can get behind.
Next it was the battle of two tall dudes with the last name of Miller. Even last year's East Coast winner and this year's emcee Tad Carducci called it the "Battle of the Millers." Death and Company's Brian Miller and Megu Midtown's Terence Miller. Brian's Bourbonnais Swizzle used some of the pecan infused bourbon I'd tried before in a hot toddy Phil Ward made for me at Death and Company. I forgot to ask for a taste of the stuff on its own, and I think I will the next time I'm there. According to some eavesdropping I did as they discussed the Bourbonnais, the current pecan-infused bourbon was an improvement from previous version. The improvement was credited to Brian's toasting of the pecans as well as keeping the pecans whole, because I heard Eben say that the breaking of the pecans releases tannins. I dutifully jotted this down for later reference. The perk of eavesdropping on a group of bartenders isn't the idea of hearing some new juicy bit of gossip, it's that they are a naturally talkative and sharing bunch about talking shop and will say things about ingredients, techniques and tools that you wouldn't have thought of asking.
The final pair to go were Jason Cobb from the Brandy Library and Gen Yamamoto from New Jersey's Lounge Zen. Gen's bio info states that he likes using seasonal and local farm produce, and it showed because his table looked a bit like a produce stand with cucumbers and tomatoes.
After a bit of time for the judges to calculate all the scores, everyone got back together to hear who had one. For the online-only Hospitality Award, the winner was Tony Perez.
Eben Freeman was awarded second place, and Don Lee won the first place prize to visit Bordeaux, France and compete in the international competition as part of Team America with the West Coast champ, Jackie Peterson of San Francisco's Zinnia.
The runner-up for the West Coast competition was Joel Baker of Bourbon & Branch, and Sierra Zimei of the Four Seasons Hotel San Francisco took home the Hospitality Award.