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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Cocktail Contests: Behind the Scenes with an S.F. Bartender in Las Vegas

Posted By on Wed, Sep 17, 2014 at 3:08 PM

Brian Means' contest winning Sunrise in Bombay - LOU BUSTAMANTE
  • Lou Bustamante
  • Brian Means' contest winning Sunrise in Bombay

If you’re like me, chances are you’ve watched your fair share of the cooking and cocktail competitions, elements that are now de rigueur for every food event. But I had always wondered how different the experience was for the competitors, and what was really involved in participating.

When barman Brian Means of Dirty Habit won the San Francisco leg of this year’s Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender in late July with his drink Sunrise in Bombay, I decided to chase him down in Vegas and find out what’s really involved in these tournaments. As it turns out, it is a lot of work and winning isn't entirely based on how good the drink is. But that does help.

Means was not taking the Vegas challenge lightly. “It definitely gets a lot more serious, because you have everyone who's won their markets or their state coming out,” says Means. “You're definitely competing against the top bartenders in the US, so you have to get really creative.”

Prepping for the quarter finals - LOU BUSTAMANTE
  • Lou Bustamante
  • Prepping for the quarter finals


click to enlarge Prepping for the quarter finals - LOU BUSTAMANTE
  • Lou Bustamante
  • Prepping for the quarter finals
All 39 of the regional finalists, including the winner from Canada, were pitted in three different rounds. The quarterfinals happened the first day, with the competitors divided into several groups, each with seven minutes to present their drink to the judges. Scores would be tallied and the top 15 would move on to the semifinals.

The quarterfinals happened in two different suites at the Wynn Hotel & Casino, and all of the competitors set up in one of the bedrooms. Means was sweating a little when I walked in to see how he was doing before his turn. The airline baggage handlers had been rough with his checked bag and a tray and spice containers had been pulverized, so he was working on a back up plan.

I asked if he was nervous, but Means said that he wasn’t. “You have to practice your routine,” he says. “I can't count how many times I actually practiced my IBA routine at my bar at home in front of the mirror.”

His presentation and drink were excellent, not an easy task when the competition is based on the International Bartender Association rules. If you're unfamiliar with IBA rules, the gist is this: they define an internationally agreed style for competing in cocktail competitions, but have rules and requirements that can seem odd. Requirements include presenting each bottle before pouring, wiping them with a towel, using tongs to apply garnish, etc. It's a little like watching a butler make a drink.

Getting filmed before a live studio audience - COURTESY OF BOMBAY SAPPHIRE GIN
  • Courtesy of Bombay Sapphire Gin
  • Getting filmed before a live studio audience


At an event that Bombay Sapphire and GQ magazine hosted at the brand new SLS Hotel that evening, they announced the names of the bartenders who would advance to the semifinals. Means advanced, but drew an unlucky card: He needed to be ready to go at 7 a.m. the next day. Most everyone was already partying hard, but Means smartly decided to call it a night and prepare for the next day, somehow dodging and resisting the invites to go partying with some of the other bartenders.

When I arrived at the stage for the semifinals the next morning, I understood his hesitation to end the night with more than a shot. While the quarterfinals were held in a suite, the semifinals were held in a TV studio and being filmed for an online TV show called "America's Bartender," part of GQ's video series. Additionally, there was a curveball: Bartenders needed to make a drink using a secret ingredient that wouldn't be revealed until the competition timer was started.

“Twelve minutes to make four cocktails [for the judges] you've never made before, with an ingredient I know I've never worked with,” says Means after the competition. “I took that lid off and I was like, 'Holy shit, what I am supposed to do with this?'”

Their ingredient was Greek yogurt. Means calmly went to work and created a drink he called Pea Brain that combined muddled shiso and sugar snap peas with a flash infused Martini & Rossi Bianco vermouth with lemon tea and grains of paradise in an ISI container (to create a pressure-vacuum infusion); yogurt; and gum syrup. The challenge is a bit of a tightrope walk. “You don't want to go too crazy and have flavors not mesh together, but you don't want to take the 'out' route and do something simple,” says Means.

“That was 100 percent new from scratch. I was trying to think of things that I could do,” says Means of his drink. “I wanted to get really creative and try and show the judges that we could do some really cool stuff with their gin and with the secret ingredient.”

In the end, Brian Means’ risk with the ingredients, while appreciated by the judges, didn’t get him a spot in the North American finals. “I would have loved to continue and go on and compete in the finals. I was pretty much ready to do the finals," he says. “I had my cocktail already planned out, what I wanted to do... I was kind of bummed out in that aspect — I really thought I could have moved on.”

At the finals Means stood in rapt attention watching the top five compete, studying their techniques, and mentally cataloging the things that worked and those that didn’t. You could tell he was already planning and working on coming back next year.

Sunrise in Bombay

1 ½ oz. Bombay Sapphire Gin
¾ oz. Pommeau du Normandie
½ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
1 oz. Mango Curry Syrup
½ egg white

Thai Basil Leaf Garnish

Combine all ingredients in a mixing tin and dry shake for approximately 10-15 seconds.
Add cubed ice and shake for another 10 seconds. Double strain the cocktail into a large cocktail coupe. Garnish with a Thai basil leaf.
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