My night as a Guinness cocktail competition judge
Wed, Mar 20, 2013 (3:38 p.m.)
“Mixologist” is a bit of a neologism, and like most unfamiliar things, it can be easy to poke fun at. Shows like Portlandia offer us parodies of mixologists featuring cooler-than-cool cuties making concoctions out of everything from homemade bitters to rotten bananas (“because, ya know, we need to get rid of it”). But even parodies reveal the truth about mixology: It’s a real study of flavor that can sometimes lead you to the best sip you’ve ever had. So when Hyde Bellagio offered me a spot at the judges’ table for its Guinness cocktail mixology battle, I didn’t have to think about it long.
A swankier answer to the St. Patrick’s Day season has probably never existed. Hyde’s real estate right behind the Bellagio fountain is enviable, and the architecture maximizes the location with an open-sky patio that flows from the dancefloor to the water. (You can actually feel the mist from the fountain on your face.)
The Rock ’n’ Brew Acoustic Lounge got started early, and though the crowd grew as the night went on, the atmosphere remained pleasant. Attendees were an elegant mashup of the post-work crowd and the “gearing up for a night on the town” set. Guys in shirtsleeves and girls in kitten heels sampled drinks like the St. James Gate and the Irish Girl Scout while Kelley James played a mellow blend of everything from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Under the Bridge” to his own brand of freestyle hip-hop.
After a bit of people-watching, I was called to action (rough life, I know). With six mixologists blending at different stations throughout the lounge, my two fellow judges and I had a lot to look forward to. Each contestant’s cocktail was rated on creativity, craftsmanship and overall taste/execution.
Beginning with Tony Demaria from Bar + Bistro, we knew we were in for a treat. His description of his drink, Popping Your Bourbon Cherry, could have been cribbed directly from Portlandia: Featuring fruit-infused pecan and peanut dust he had prepared at home, his sophisticated cocktail was straddled by a bourbon-soaked black cherry on a reedy green sprig of toothpick.
Everyone agreed that mixologist Greg Lee, sporting a curvy black cowboy hat, would have been the hands-down winner if showmanship were the only category. As it was, he barely seemed to notice the contest going on, enjoying a nonstop audience at his station. He had his own scantily clad barback and hooted and hollered flirtatiously as he rimmed glasses with Bac~Os bacon bits and served up his complete cocktail breakfast, the Breakfast of Champions, which included bacon vodka and Aunt Jemima syrup (surprisingly tastier than it sounds).
But even Greg’s effusiveness and Tony’s creativity couldn’t beat out the plain deliciousness of Back Bar USA mixologist Jair Bustillos’ Guinness Me Timbers. It might not have had the best name, but it definitely had the best taste. After sampling what the other five competitors had created, all three of us judges wanted another of Jair’s, the new criteria for a winning drink.
Afterward, a lively girl in a cheetah-print top, black leggings and stilettos confirmed my suspicions. Introducing herself as Kate, she confessed that she’d gone back to Jair for seconds, too.
As the competition came to a close, the night seemed to just be getting started. Ladies in evening wear replaced the remaining daytime-clad crowd, and Guinness-infused cocktails gave way to martini glasses filled with lime-green and pink liquids. St. Patrick’s Day or not, it seems when mixologists play, the drinkers have all the luck, especially on a perfect spring night in a sumptuous spot surrounded by beautiful people dressed to kill.