Aaron Christiansen's magic ingredients included port wine, black peppercorns ginger liqueur and a plum. Oh, and a little chunk of dry ice, which created the impression of a bubbling potion. "Visually, that's very overwhelming and appealing," he said.
Kim Kraimer, on the other hand, wanted to keep things "fairly simple." This, to her, meant combining a sweet South American canary melon, kumquats, ginger syrup and prosciutto. "Nothing too crazy," she said.
Lindsay Skillman aimed a silver caramelizing gun at her glass and pulled the trigger, filling the room with the sweet scent of warm orange and vanilla. "It's something where you just go, 'Huh. Wow,' " she said.
And Christine Misiura crafted a shrine of fruity concept art, filling the mouth of a martini glass with a large grapefruit slice and a peel rolled into the shape of a rose. It looks like a neon lily pad, and you're meant to sip through it. "The first time I made it, people were wondering, 'Why?' "
For the answer, you really had to be at Timpano Italian Chophouse on Aug. 1 for Bombay Sapphire's annual "Most Inspired Bartender" contest. The event brought together 27 inventive bartenders from around Central Florida, all vying for a spot in the gin maker's national competition in Las Vegas in September. The winner will be featured in GQ magazine.
For the bartenders, it was a chance to experiment with fresh ingredients and curious combinations in a room full of like-minded mixologists.
And for the competitors from Tampa, it was a chance to showcase the unique flavors now flowing at a high-top table near you.
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This was the third year Bombay Sapphire has held its Most Inspired Bartender contest in Tampa. The first year, it drew 18 bartenders and about 70 people. The second year, it drew 22 and 150. This year, 27 and 200.
"Tampa is at the forefront of the mixology revolution," said Gabriel Urrutia, a Bacardi representative who served as a judge in the contest.
That may seem like an overstatement, considering the mixology revolution has been going on for years in cities like New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. But Urrutia's point is that bartenders in cities like Tampa — or Orlando or Phoenix or Houston — are inventing cocktails that could stand on menus at just about any speakeasy in the country.
These aren't your everyday gin and tonics. They're exquisitely crafted cocktails that can take 10 minutes or more to mix and pour. Some are fresh takes on drinks that debuted long before Prohibition. Competitors in the Bombay Sapphire contest were judged not only on the taste of their drink, but on technique, presentation and "charisma/inspiration."
"It's more like tasting a food," said Dawn Heidemann of the Ritz Ybor, who served as a blind taste judge. "It's the end product of a recipe."
The cocktail porn on display at Timpano was proof of that. Contestants used everything from Australian ginger beer to flaming rosemary sprigs, from cantaloupe foam to Earl Grey tea. They spoke of experimenting with tarragon, pineapple leaves, caviar, A1 sauce and liquid nitrogen.
"I'm floored by the talent that I saw here in Tampa," said judge Camille Austin, a Miami mixologist and ambassador with Bombay Sapphire. "Miami, in the past two years, has really been put on the map in the mixology world, but it goes hand in hand with New York, San Francisco — big cities. I think people in Miami forget about Tampa; it kind of gets lost somewhere. They should be threatened."
Dean Hurst of SideBern's, who won the contest in 2009, recently co-founded a chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild, dedicated to the "craft of mixology." Five of the group's six board members were in the contest.
"We all talked about our recipes; we all worked together," he said. "I've done a few competitions like these. I wanted to make sure they had everything they wanted: 'Do you have squeeze bottles?' 'Make sure you hold your shaker like this and your jigger like that.' That was very helpful. I'd rather it be more of an even playing field than just be about my drink and your drink."
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In the end, the competition was nearly a clean Tampa sweep.
Hurst placed third with a tiki-inspired drink blending gin, fresh lemon juice, orgeat (an almond syrup) and muddled peach. He tied with Christiansen, the dry-ice-aided mixologist, who works at an Orlando club, Touch.
Coming in second was Danny Guess of Fly Bar and Restaurant in downtown Tampa, with a drink he called the Ruby Club: gin, rhubarb syrup, lemon juice and egg white. Using what looked like a medicine dropper, he dotted each one with a snaky row of barrel-aged bitters. He'd been working on the recipe for two months, mostly for fun.
"We don't carry egg whites behind our bar," he said. "That's kind of why I wanted to do this, so I could experiment around with some things that my bar doesn't normally offer."
And taking the 2011 title was Bob Wagner of Ciro's Speakeasy and Supper Club in South Tampa. His drink was a fresh, floral riff on the Singapore Sling: Gin, orgeat, heavy cream, fresh lemon juice, house-made lavender honey, a bar spoon of absinthe and a floater of creme de violette. The combination played to each of Bombay Sapphire's 10 botanical notes, from juniper to cassia to cubeb.
While the judges raved about Wagner's cocktail, it was his larger-than-life presentation that cinched his place in the winner's circle. The bushy-bearded bartender roared, preened, flirted, threw high-fives and played to the crowd. "He was the only competitor to serve four individual drinks so that each of the judges could have one, and so he could pass it around to the crowd," Austin noted.
Said Wagner: "It's important to understand cocktails and make great drinks. But a bartender's more than just a person who can make great drinks. We're on stage, basically. We're hosting a party, sitting at the bar. You have to be able to entertain the guests."
Maybe that's the next step in the mixology revolution: A bartender who mixes cocktails with Cocktail. That's an idea Tampa drinkers might get behind.