Bar Brawls Week 9: It's the (Semi) Final Countdown!

Bouchard's Bee Sting cocktail: how's that for marketing?
Bouchard's Bee Sting cocktail: how's that for marketing?
Kelly Coulson Photography

Bob Higginbotham wasn’t kidding last week when he said the competition was going to get more difficult. The first week of semifinals came with a whole new set of rules and four bartenders competing against each other. In past weeks, three bartenders have shown up to compete in two rounds, the first involving making a classic cocktail and the second (after one bartender is eliminated) to use three secret ingredients to make at least two original cocktails in 30 minutes. Well, things got much more complicated this week. Here’s how the scoring worked:

Four bartenders, each the winner of a competition from round one, bellied up to the bar for the first nigh to semi-final. The first part of the battle was broken up into two “heats,” with two of the returning bartenders going head-to-head. During the first heat, each bartender presented his best batch cocktail, and then had fifteen minutes to make four portions of—not one, but three—classic cocktails. The cycle is repeated with the remaining two bartenders.

After two bartenders are eliminated, three secret ingredients were unveiled, and the remaining two bartenders have thirty minutes to create as many cocktails as possible using the secret ingredients. (One can see how this all adds up to a very long night, right?)

Last night's brawlers were:

  • Bobby Brown: Sweetwater Tavern/Craft Cartel, Boynton Beach
  • David Bouchard: The Cooper, Palm Beach Gardens
  • James Hartmann: Ian’s Tropical Grill, Stuart
  • Matt Swig: Sundy House, Delray Beach

Last night's judges were: 

  • Lindsay Autry: Top Chef season 9 finalist
  • Rob Husted: USBG member and flair bartending champion
  • Issac Grasso: owner of Miami's Repour Bar

Round-one battlers were Brown and Bouchard. Brown's batch cocktail, the Eye of the Tiger, contained bourbon, blood orange juice, Osbourne Pedro Ximenez 1827 sherry, ginger shrub and Angostura bitters, served “neat” with a dehydrated blood orange slice as a garnish. 

“I don’t do hair of the dog, I’m the goddamn jungle cat!” said Brown. 

Celebrity chef Lindsay Autry judged last night's Bar Brawls competition.
Celebrity chef Lindsay Autry judged last night's Bar Brawls competition.
Kelly Coulson Photography

Bouchard’s cocktail was called a Bee Sting, and he described it as “a modern riff on a Bees Knees.” It contained Russel Henry Hawaiian White Ginger Gin, honey syrup, lemon juice, blueberry sake, and a little carbonation. Four individual glass bottles of it were delivered — no joke — in a metal suitcase. Bouchard gave each judge his or her own bottle opener.

The judges reserved their comments until after the second heat when three classic cocktails were assigned: The (ubiquitous) Old Fashioned, the Corpse Reviver #2, and the lesser-known Queens Park Swizzle.

Corpse Reviver #2
1 oz. gin
1 oz. Cointreau
1 oz. Lillet Blanc
1 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 dash absinthe
Tools: shaker, strainer
Glass: cocktail
Garnish: orange peel
Shake all ingredients with ice, strain into a chilled glass and garnish.

Queens Park Swizzle
3 oz. 80-proof Demerara rum
1/2 oz. rich simple syrup (2:1)
1/2 oz. fresh lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
8 to 10 mint leaves
Tools: swizzle stick, muddler
Glass: chimney or highball
Garnish: mint sprig, lime 

Judges loved Brown’s Old Fashioned, which was well-balanced. Autry enjoyed both competitors’ versions of the Corpse Reviver #2. She said, “I’m gonna be drunk in about 30 minutes. Thank you!”

Next up were James Hartmann of Ian’s Tropical Grill in Stuart (who dutifully makes the trek every week from Martin County to attend Bar Brawls) and Matt Swig of the Sundy House in Delray.

Bar Brawls unsung hero Scott Clifford lets competitor Matt Swig rub his beard for luck
Bar Brawls unsung hero Scott Clifford lets competitor Matt Swig rub his beard for luck
Kelly Coulson Photography

Swig ‘s drink was Buddha Hand-infused Mezcal, bright yellow Strega (meaning “witch” in Italian) liqueur, and rosemary. He called it “The Punchline” because the original moniker, “Buddha and The Witch Walk into a Mexican Bar,” didn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Hartmann brought a Red Velvet Angel, a mix of bourbon, Velvet Falernum, lemon juice, and prickly pear juice, topped with St. Germain foam. His supporters cheered him on, chanting “James on my drink!”

Swig and Hartmann then got down to busting out the classic cocktails, with Swig looking perturbed because he didn’t know how to make one of them.  However, the judges loved his Old Fashioned.

Husted had some encouraging words for Hartmann: “When I looked at your Queens Park Swizzle, I was worried about that huge ass straw. Well, I sipped through that huge ass straw…and I smiled.”

Ian's Tropical Grill chef/owner Eric Grutka (left) helps his barman James Hartmann (right) serve up his cocktails.
Ian's Tropical Grill chef/owner Eric Grutka (left) helps his barman James Hartmann (right) serve up his cocktails.
Kelly Coulson Photography

After all four competitors presented the classic cocktails, Brown and Bouchard made the cut and moved on to round two, and the unveiling of three secret ingredients: Deep Eddy vodka, Triple Sec, and fresh cranberries. The scent of orange peel was in the air as the barmen worked at a feverish pace.

Brown’s first drink was a riff on a Lemon Drop, made with Deep Eddy vodka, triple sec, lemon juice, and bourbon blueberry jam, garnished with fresh sage. When given the microphone, he asked the crowd, “Anyone here with birthdays today? That makes you what, a Sagittarius? Well, this drink is called a “Sage-ittarius!” Husted remarked, “It’s festive, but not too sweet.”

Brown's version of a Lemon Drop cocktail with cranberries and fresh sage
Brown's version of a Lemon Drop cocktail with cranberries and fresh sage
Kelly Coulson Photography

Bouchard’s first cocktail was also inspired by the Lemon Drop, garnished with cranberries and orange peel. After that, he busted out two more cocktails back-to-back. One, inspired by the Negroni, used vodka and triple sec, orange bitters and orange zest. The other was a mix of vodka, muddled cranberries, simple syrup, lime juice, Cassoni, and cranberry bitters. The judges loved it.

Brown caught up with his second drink, a clean and crisp mix of vodka, triple sec, grapefruit juice, cherry bitters and cherry liqueur. “This is one of the more delicate cocktails,” said Autry. “You impressed me with your jiggering skills. You wear those jiggers like brass knuckles, man” said Husted.

Brown served his third, which was Autry’s favorite of the night. Light pink and served in a champagne glass, it was girly and sparkly. It contained yellow Chartreuse, vodka, triple sec, and a floater of Maraschino liqueur. Catching up with Bouchard with a fourth cocktail just in the nick of time, he offered up a variation on the Vesper that used both cherry and cranberry bitters.

With only a few moments remaining and Bouchard’s supporters chanting “Boosh! Boosh! Boosh!” he served up a fourth cocktail, a take on the Moscow Mule, with vodka, cranberries, tripe sec, lime juice, a touch of ginger beer, and fresh mint garnish. Bouchard made a fifth cocktail, but decided not to serve it. Judges agreed that all four of his drinks were solid and consistent, with good balance, assuring him the win. 

The Winner: Dave Bouchard of The Cooper

Bar Brawls Week 9: It's the (Semi) Final Countdown!

Hit up Max's Social House next Wednesday for Week 10, as Kelly Lozina of 3rd & 3rd, Marc Volpicelli (One Man Wolf Pack), Yeiry Medero of Oceans 234, and Andrew Lozenka of Sweetwater return for the second round of semi-finals.

Bar Brawls is held at (allegedly) 9:30 p.m. every Wednesday at Max’s Social House through December 9. Admission is $10 and includes one complimentary drink. Max's Social House is located in Delray Beach. Visit the Facebook event page.

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