It’s six o’clock at night in New Orleans and I’m sweating, hard. Not because of the heat outside, but because I’m inside, on a stage with a microphone in my hand. Eight of the best bartenders in the country are lined up behind me, hundreds of people are seated in front of me, and everyone in the room is staring at me. And at this moment all I can think about is my near-debilitating case of stagefright and how much I hate speaking in public. So I pause for a second and think to myself:
How in the hell did I end up here?
To answer that, we have to go back a year, to the previous gathering of bartenders, cocktail aficionados, bon vivants and drunkards known as Tales of the Cocktail. One similarly steamy night in July of 2008, after a long night of trash-talking with friends Daniel Shoemaker and Erik Adkins, we decided it would be a fine idea to have an impromptu three-man cocktail contest using only the ingredients found in my swag bag. So we grabbed a few friends, headed up to the pool, spread out a mind-numbing array of airplane bottles, syrups, sauces, candies and even (seriously) candles and proceeded to see who could make the best cocktail using only those ingredients (read more and even watch a video of the contest here.)
Anyway. It was fun, and dumb, and none of us thought much of it ten minutes after we declared Daniel the winner. But word spread, and our little throwdown became a sort of celebrated thing underground. Even David Wondrich grabbed my by the arm on the last night and said, “Hey, Morgenthaler, if you do that swag bag thing again next year, I want in.”
So, fast-forward four or so months – when I’m really not thinking about that night – to a cocktail party… in New Jersey of all places. It was there that I bumped into Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail. Ann pulled me aside and propositioned me about making the Swag Bag Competition a real sanctioned event at Tales this year. “Sounds good”, I said, and we put together a conference call to hammer out the details.
It was during this conference call that I was introduced to the folks at Grand Marnier/Navan and we all chatted about the event. Now, I’m generally pretty clueless, but I must have sounded like a real rube when I exclaimed, “Wait, let me get this straight – you want that thing I did on the roof last year to be the official Grand Marnier cocktail contest?!”
“Yes, you idiot”, must have been what everyone in on the conference call was thinking, but thankfully nobody spoke out loud. But what they did tell me was that they wanted me to design and host the whole thing: I was now in charge of picking the contestants, judges, setting the rules, choosing the items for the swag bags, and get up in front of the crowd and emcee the event – everything.
Well, shit. Fortunately I remembered that David Wondrich had wanted in, so I emailed him and asked him if he’d like to be a judge. But Dave wrote back and said, “I was actually hoping to compete.” Well, double-shit, now I’ve got James Beard award-winning author David Wondrich competing, and this is becoming, like, a real thing.
But if there’s one thing I’ve got going for me, it’s the fact that I’ve got a lot of good friends in this business. So I called up seven of them from cities around the country and asked them if they’d like to compete in my humble little Grand Marnier sponsored event. And you know what I love about my friends? Every one of them said, “Yes”.
And so there I was, on stage in front of Ricky Gomez, Paul Clarke, Misty Kalkofen, Neyah White, Todd Thrasher, David Wondrich, Giuseppe Gonzalez and Eric Alperin (who even went one step further for me and shaved a mohawk just for the competition).
On my cue, the eight of them opened their swag boxes and began working on a cocktail with the following disparate list of ingredients: Glenmorangie Scotch, Chopin Vodka, Don Julio Blanco Tequila, Hennessy VSOP Cognac, Tanqueray, Grand Marnier, Navan, Tabasco, Tea Forte Cocktail Infusions, Amarula Cream, Yellow Chartreuse, Alexia Chips, Freshies Bloody Mary Mix, Dirty Sue Olive Juice, Antigua & Barbuda Hot Sauce, Jalapeno, Chocolate, & Tropical Tanteo Tequilas, Kona Coffee Liqueur, Purista Natural Mojito Mix, Dum-Dum Lollipops and M&Ms
It was – in a word – insane. Wondrich immediately began building a little makeshift still out of a cocktail shaker and some aluminum foil and distilled Navan liqueur. I thought Misty was pouring a shot for me and herself, but she was actually about to infuse the tequila with Tea Forte tea infusions (we did the shot anyway). Thrasher was working on a reduction of Navan liqueur, and the whole thing went up in flames.
Alperin’s cheering section brought a boom box and was blasting music from inside the audience. The ladies of LUPEC Boston were standing on their seats and screaming for Misty. Our judges didn’t know what to think, I’m guessing it was the most unconventional cocktail competition they’d ever been involved in.
At one point I was asked to clear the stage of the people that had gotten up out of their chairs and were yelling at the contestants, but to no avail – the crowd had officially decided to bum-rush the show.
The whole thing lasted only an hour and a half, but it felt like it was over as soon as it began. The contestants presented their cocktails to the judges one-by-one and after much deliberation, they declared Giuseppe’s mixture of tea-infused Glenmorangie, Navan and Piña Colada mix to be the winner.
Special thanks to Brian Huff and David Shenaut for the use of the photos. Hopefully we’ll be returning next year with more.