Mark Brand's winning drink, Angela the Grand Dame, at the 2010 Mixlympics.
Sunday may not have been a great day for Canadians at the hockey arena (or the curling rink or the ski slopes, for that matter) but we did manage to bring home the gold in one area where we excel — drinking. Or, to be more precise, making great cocktalis that can compete with the best in the world.
Sunday was the day of the much-anticipated Mixlympics, where 10 bartenders from Vancouver, Toronto, London, Paris and Stockholm competed in a black box cocktail contest at George Ultra Lounge in Yaletown, organized by George’s bar manager, Shaun Layton.
The rule was they had to use the sponsor spirit, Martin Miller Gin, and at least one of the five black box ingredients. Those ingredients were just a tad on the challenging side: a blood orange, Campari and vanilla preserve from Vista d’Oro farms; Venturi-Schulze balsamic vinegar; “White Dog,” the overproof raw spirit that, when aged in oak, becomes Maker’s Mark bourbon; R&b Brewing’s Icehole Celebration Lager; and a raw, unshucked oyster. Plus, of course, they had George’s entire menu of spirits, syrups and fresh ingredients to play with.
The bartenders were secreted away upstairs in Brix until it was time for them to compete. Then, two by two, they were brought down to the bar, shown the black box ingredients and given exactly 10 minutes to concoct four drinks for the judges.
These guys are pros, and each of them produced exceptional drinks that would have worked on any bar list anywhere in the world. But the judges (including myself) wanted to be wowed. We were marking on taste, of course, but also presentation, execution, originality, balance and performance. More than that, though, we wanted to see something with both forethought and spontaneity, something that really made the most of the ingredients they were given. Secretly, we all figured that anyone who used the oyster in a halfway decent drink would win.
Not surprisingly, most of the guys did variations on the classics: a couple of flips, an updated Aviation, a twist on the Breakfast Martini, that sort of thing. Also not surprisingly, the French guys did fruity, slightly sweet drinks. The Brits were a bit boozier and more astringent. And the Vancouver guys, who are used to making do with a limited booze selection but terrific fresh ingredients, were just a bit more risk-takingly creative than the rest.
London's David Greig with the second place cocktail.
Now, if the winner was based solely on taste, London’s David Greig would have won hands down for the fantastic, multi-layered flip he called the New Björk Sour (a reference to Martin Miller gin, which is distilled in England then sent to Iceland to use their pure water). The judges also went crazy for another Londoner’s drink, Joe Stokoe’s luscious variation on the Aviation, which he called the Aeroplane Blonde.
But it was Vancouverite Mark Brand, owner of Boneta and The Diamond, who carried the day. First of all, he killed with his presentation glass — a commemorative wine goblet from the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, garnished with a slice of orange peel carved into a Maple Leaf and soaked in Campari.
Mark Brand gets serious.
Not only that, but he was one of only three competitors to use more than one black box ingredient. He made bitters a la minute by crushing juniper berries and other spices, wrapping them in cheesecloth and briefly soaking them in White Dog. And then his drink, which he named Angela The Grand Dame for Martin Miller’s famous still, was fantastic, just a completely fresh, exciting flavour, very unusual yet very drinkable, just a sophisticated, grown up drink.
David Greig came in second with that luscious flip and Vancouver’s Jay Jones was third with his Tie Down, a great, boozy, flavourful variation on a Martinez or a Pall Mall.
And the guys are set for a rematch — they’re already planning the next Mixlympics for London in 2012. See you there!
Jay Jones (centre) with the third place cocktail.