The Great Improper Bartending Competition
Six bartenders go in. One comes out drenched in glory. And rum.
Photographs by Simon Simard
Magazine editors love to classify things. It’s in our blood, like making puns so dire they cause brain contusions. (“What’s a good headline for the wine column?” “How about ‘Grape Expectations’?” “Genius!”). So when asked, “What’s the best appetizer in town?” or “How do you solve the Middle East situation?” we can’t answer, “Everything is subjective.” We must rise to the bait. (The grilled octopus at UpStairs on the Square. And, um, Palestinian statehood?)
So it seemed like a good idea to hoist the banner of sweeping generality and definitively name the finest bartender in the city. Culling three mixologists from our Hall of Fame, we invited them along with three rising stars to the Great Improper Bartending Competition. The veteran tier included Josh Childs of Silvertone Bar & Grill, Parlor Sports and Trina’s Starlite Lounge, John Gertsen of Drink and Joy Richard of Franklin Restaurant Group. Our upstarts were Nicole Lebedevitch of the Hawthorne, Sam Treadway of Backbar and Kelly Unda of Harvest and Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar. There were two elimination rounds, with the survivor from each tier brandishing his or her shaker in the final.
To judge the proceedings, there was Improper cocktail columnist Lindsey Canant, the bartending scene’s answer to Solon of Athens Brother Cleve, bar and beverage director at Big Night Entertainment Group Joe O’Connor, and myself. Our host was Red Lantern, a restaurant that combines an evolved cocktail menu with the design aesthetic of a Vinaya monastery. It was an ideal setting on account of a roomy, 40-foot bar, a robust vodka selection and plenty of ambient Buddhas in case anyone caught a case of stage jitters. Also, the kitchen was stocked with ingredients should someone spontaneously invent, say, a feta cheese Manhattan.
Having shaken out their aprons and arranged, surgeon-like, their mixing instruments on the bartop, the competitors are ready. In the middle of the bar stand two glass bowls overflowing with bouquets of sage, rosemary, sorrel, even pedestrian basil—enough to fuel an Italian restaurant for a week. Herbs are a factor in the first challenge, in which the bartenders have 15 minutes to concoct a drink using Privateer Silver Reserve rum, a spirit that lends itself happily to infusions.
The bar erupts in motion. Richard is plucking at the herb bunches, Unda’s hands are a blur. Gertsen, groomed so sharp even his cowlick has an edge, is chilling what I take to be port glasses. Lebedevitch stirs furiously. They’re as focused as Formula 1 drivers, except they’ve got open containers.
Six minutes in, Gertsen asks if he can present his drink. “It’s a variation on the Palmetto,” he explains. In a glass rinsed with green Chartreuse, he combines two parts rum with one part Martini & Rossi vermouth and a dash of orange bitters. The result is a warm, brandy-colored drink with a complex nose—an elegant sipper on a brisk spring evening. Judging on a scale of 1–10 for presentation, flavor, creativity and use of ingredient, he scores 132/160 between the four judges, with highest marks on flavor. Next is Childs, whose variation on the Toronto replaces rye with rum and adds Averna, orange bitters and a long orange peel. It tastes clear and light, with the herbal nip of the Averna filling out the rum’s floral and sugar cane notes. It scores him 124/160, with big numbers from use of ingredient. Last of the Hall of Famers is Richard, who says, “I wanted to play off the herbal and vanilla notes in the rum,” so she infuses it with sorrel. Adding pineapple juice to lime, along with Bénédictine, green Chartreuse and Lillet, her concoction has a round, fruity nose and tastes lightly citrusy. High scores all around, especially on creativity, netting her a total of 135 points.
Sam Treadway leads the rising star tier with his take on a Chartreuse swizzle, which he calls “Dreaming of Sage.” Like Richard, he combines pineapple and lime (raising suggestions of cribbing), but adds sage leaves, almond syrup and Angostura bitters to the Privateer. Served on crushed ice, it’s an intricate but chuggable summer cocktail. High grades for presentation and flavor, tallying 128. Lebedevitch, for her part, veers into a different flavor profile with a rum Manhattan, muddled with rosemary. “It says good-bye to winter, hello to spring, with the light rum carrying heavy flavors.” Hungarian Zwack liqueur yields a medicine-cabinet kick, leavened by Angostura bitters and orange. It works, especially in the flavor category, winning 130 points. Last up is Unda, whose take on a Dark and Stormy blends rosemary-infused syrup with orange bitters and Lillet. The sweetness of the syrup isn’t quite undercut by the bitters, while the rosemary toys gently with the rum’s notes of basil and anise. Earning high scores in presentation, Unda clocks in at 118 points.
The judges announce the first round of eliminations. Childs retires from his tier, and Unda from hers. There’s much backslapping, a few faux triumphalist cheers and embarrassed smiles from the judges. Then Childs and Unda cross the bar to watch their friends grapple with the next test.
Drunken Aside #1: I haven’t always been tolerant of rum. As a youth, I was too insecure to see past the prejudices aroused by umbrella drinks. Long delvings into sherry made me realize that sweetness doesn’t bar seriousness, but I still think that liquors, like wines, have personalities. Whiskies, even white ones, are like gentlemen with deliberate facial hair and earnest opinions. Gin is a weathered beauty who clings to her sex appeal despite some telling sag and a heavy hand on the perfume spritz. Vodka, no matter the label or flavoring agents, is an approachable blonde. Tequila (except sweet añejo, which is a dapper, overly-mannered playboy) is a hot-eyed dancing girl with an alarming secret (she’s got a penis). Absinthe, of course, is a psycho with a hockey mask and a tire iron.
The first round was a test of creativity, so the second is a measure of craft. The bartenders’ task is to mix the perfect Ramos gin fizz, one of the most grueling cocktails in the handbook. It isn’t a hassle on account of requiring smoked ice cubes, pork foam or other fripperies—the salient liquids are cream, orange flower water, lemon and lime juice, soda water and egg whites. Rather, to achieve an ideal, velvet texture, the drink demands several minutes of rabid shaking. This is a girlie drink for the strong.
I announce the challenge and the bartenders leap to their ice and gin bottles. Except Richard, who looks a little blank and starts a muttered conversation with Childs. In moments, the four competitors are giving a fair approximation of a maraca ensemble. Lebedevitch exhibits a willowy club night style; Richard, in a tank top, looks fiercely aerobic, flexing her tattoos. Treadway has a confident musicality—he spent yesterday mixing this drink as a special at Backbar; Gertsen is brisk and businesslike. After 10 minutes of rattling exercise, the fizzes decant.
Lebedevitch pours small glasses for the judges, but fixes a full-sized portion for the sake of presentation. She uses Bombay Sapphire gin, which has a clean nip that doesn’t detract from the dessert aromas of cream and orange flower. The sweetness is balanced with lime, and the texture is evenly frothy, like a latte that never devolves into a slurp of warm milk. She scores on flavor and accuracy, racking up 113/120 points. “If you don’t drink that, I will,” she says, pointing to the presentation glass. And she does.
Although Treadway favors Old Tom Gin, Red Lantern doesn’t stock it, so he opts for cucumbery Hendrick’s (“It’s supposed to be a brunch drink”). A heavier hand with the soda water makes it subtly fizzier than Lebedevitch’s, earning full marks from one of the judges on accuracy. He wins his tier by a nose with 115.
By this time, some of the judges are taking deeper tastes. A few glasses hold nothing but ice streaked with Ramos residue. On to Richard, who immediately confesses, “I didn’t know the recipe, so Josh helped me out.” Instead of a neat twist of orange zest, her garnishes are droopy, and the texture is more granular than frothy. She bows out with 78 points. Gertsen, on the other hand, scores big on flavor and presentation. His orange twists might have been crafted by Flemish jewelers. Like Treadway, he earns full marks from one judge and wins his tier with 122.
Drunken Aside #2: Using a ball and stick molecular model, the sort that organic chemistry students cobble together out of plastic and foam, alcohol has a carbon body, an oxygen head, and limbs of protruding hydrogen. It looks kind of like a doggy. Even on a molecular level, then, alcohol is approachable. Companionable. A good partner for curling up on the sofa with a bag of corn chips.
Of course, it has a tendency to bite.
“So the two guys in bartender vests made it to the finals,” laughs Lebedevitch. Our finalists do, glaringly, look the part of serious mixologists—men who can comfortably discuss Pisang Ambon without giggling. Their final test is to concoct, in 15 minutes, a cocktail that embodies the character of The Improper Bostonian. An Improper-tini, if you will. This, naturally, raises a lot of ontological questions: Who are we? What’s the distillate of our soul? And is it garnished with a cocktail onion?
Gertsen’s answer takes “improper” to mean “inverted.” “I thought of Julia Child, and how she liked reverse martinis,” he explains. The result is a dark amber mix of two parts vermouth to one of Bombay Sapphire gin, leavened with orange curacao and Angostura bitters. Instead of Child’s preferred dry vermouth, he uses sweet Martini & Rossi. “People like sweet things, but not a lot of them admit it.” The taste is complex yet restrained, a piano sonata to a true martini’s symphonic torrent. He scores 98/120, with highest marks on flavor.
Treadway displays a flashier vision with his “East Meets West,” a drink that suggests The Improper is worldly, a little spicy and terrifically overpriced. “If you ordered this in a bar, it’d cost $25,” he admits, abashed. “But I wanted to use Japanese whiskey, and the only one I could find here was Yamazaki 18-year-old.” It’s a frothy combination of Don Julio Añejo tequila, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, Yamazaki whiskey, lemon juice and three judicious drops of Sriracha. The first taste is crisp citrus, gaining teeth from the ginger. Then you feel the liquors’ brawn before the whisper of an afterburn. The disparate layers are idiosyncratic, but, against logic, they mesh—a case of the parts adding up to a weirdly satisfying whole.
As the judges deliberate, Richard slips behind the bar and starts pouring shots for herself and the other “losers.” The East Meets West earns 99 points from the judges, with top scores on creativity, trumping Gertsen’s inverse martini by the tiniest possible margin. I announce that Sam Treadway is the winner of the Great Improper Bartending Competition, and the bartenders throw themselves, surprisingly lustily, into a spate of group hugs.
Drunken Aside #3: In James Jones’ From Here to Eternity, there’s a passage describing the exertion it takes to drink seriously: “It required concentration, and study, and energy, and will power, and a great deal of thought; to really be a successful drunkard. Anybody could be a half-assed drunkard.”
Jones implies a parallel between drinking and boxing, and he’s right. Contrary to the tutting wisdom, drinking isn’t for the weak. The bodily attrition, the unseen scars, the will it takes to remain standing for one more round. And if, out of perversity or doggedness or addiction to the ordeal, you choose to endure, it’s only temporary. There is, in the end, a solitary, inevitable outcome to the fight. You will lose. Mortality will have its due.
But that’s true even if you never climb inside the ring.
Tallying each tier’s scores, the Hall of Famers earned 690 points to the Rising Stars’ 683, proving that experience yields a slim edge. As the bartenders stow away their jiggers, Brother Cleve tips his hat and hurries to catch a bus. The Red Lantern crew gathers the half-drained glasses. Herb bunches are whisked back to the kitchen, rum bottles slip into their cardboard case. We amble, blinking, back into the day, where the spring sun emblazons the streets with those clear, sharp colors that come from an afternoon spent in the shade of a cocktail bar.
We’ve got to do this again next year.
Makeup by Dianna Quagenti for Yaby Cosmetics