What do you get when you combine gin, pineapple juice, Cherry Heering, Bénédictine, and fresh pineapple juice? Besides a lot of drunk imbibers, it's also what's commonly known as the Singapore Sling, a gin-based cocktail developed in the early 1900s by Ngiam Tong Boon, a Hainanese bartender working at the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel, Singapore.
That was the drink Bar Brawls competitors Kelly Lozina (3rd & 3rd, Delray Beach), Taffy Spiller (Farmer's Table, Boca Raton), and Justin Himmelbaum (Mucho Gusto, Delray Beach) were tasked with making in week five of the Max Group's bracket-style bartender competition at Max's Social House in Delray Beach on Wednesday, October 28.
First called a Gin Sling, over time Singapore Sling's "original" recipe was reduced to nothing more than an embarrassing excuse for a tiki libation: gin, some grenadine, and a dash of premade, bottled sweet-and-sour mix. But not so at Max's Social House this week, where it was just like D.A. Embury, author of the 20th-century cocktail encyclopedia The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, said:
"Of all the recipes published for the Singapore Sling, I have never seen any two that were alike."
That was certainly the case during this past Bar Brawls, where judges Rob Husted, Twisted Tuna owner Brian Leskovsky, and Max's Social House Assistant General Manager Ashleigh Rvedinger sipped from three very different takes on the classic gin sling cocktail made using the mystery spirit of the evening, a potent St. George dry rye gin.
All three bartenders busted out their own version of the Singapore Sling, with Himmelbaum up first, riffing the recipe with a touch of allspice dram and a light mist of absinthe. Lozina followed with her take, a near-perfect execution delivering what judges said was a more complex and potent drink thanks to the addition of some lime juice and Luxardo maraschino cherry liqueur.
Spiller, who wasn't familiar with the tiki-style libation, summed up her performance in one sentence: "I didn't make you a Singapore Sling, but I made you my version of one." Served in a short glass on the rocks, the Farmer's Table barkeep cut the dry, bold gin with plenty of sugary sweetness from some simple syrup. The judges applauded her for her honesty and showmanship, but it kept her from moving on to the second round.
In round two, Lozina and Himmelbaum were all business behind the bar, where they were presented with the evening's final two mystery ingredients, including a bottle of zesty Mandarin Napolean liqueur. That made sense with the gin, but the second ingredient was just a touch more challenging.
Aside from stuff your face with wanton abandon, what would you do with a bowl full of Halloween candy? At this week's Bar Brawls, round two finalists Himmelbaum and Lozina made a few damned fine cocktails with a jack-o'-lantern plastic bucket filled with mini Reece's Peanut Butter Cups, AirHeads, Smarty's, and Tootsie Rolls.
Himmelbaum busted out the first cocktail of the night, his take on the Blood and Sand (on the Beach), a tiki-style drink served over crushed ice combining the gin with orange juice, Laphroaig, Cherry Heering, and muddled cherry AirHeads. The Mucho Gusto cofounder followed with his second drink of the night, a concoction all the judges seemed to be dreaming about: an old fashioned with some sort of chocolate component. It won rave reviews from Husted, who thanked Himmelbaum for using his favorite candy — mini Reece's Peanut Butter Cups — to make a Reece's and berry preserve simple syrup (and for using a swipe of melted chocolate for an inventive glass garnish).
Lozina wasn't going to let her fellow Delray Beach barkeep take the spotlight, however. She came out of left field with a bright-yellow libation, a classy drink served in a wine glass with a single block cube and a lemon peel garnish, which she dubbed the Sparkling Mandarin. It was light and refreshing thanks to some orange bitters and prosecco and made the sampling easy on Rvedinger, who gave bonus points for her favorite drink of the evening.
So, how many licks does it take to get to the heart of the judges? We know the answer: just one — at least for Husted. The president of the USBG Palm Beach chapter lauded Lozina's second drink, her take on a Bourbon Flip. Her Tootsie Roll Flip came out a Tootsie Roll dream, a frothy and creamy cocktail served in a short cocktail glass — a mix of gin, Woodford Reserve bourbon infused with Tootsie Rolls, espresso, egg white, simple syrup, and chocolate bitters.
Lozina kept the punches coming with her third drink — another frothy creation she named the Mini Mandarin — this time served in a glass Coke bottle. It had the body of a root beer float, however, only with plenty of booze and no ice cream thanks to a blend of Bacardi 8 rum, cream, Mandarin Napoleon liqueur, Coke, and simple syrup that Husted named "the best fucking drink of the night."
It would have been a knockout win had it not been for Lozina's fourth and final drink, which didn't wow the panel of judges; it lost her some points and brought her head-to-head with Himmelbaum, making us all witness to the first-ever Bar Brawls tie. To settle the score, Max's Social House bar manager Scott Clifford — also an unofficial taste tester during each event — gave the final nod to Lozina, the week five winner.
Stay tuned for next week, when the showdown continues with Alain Comacho of the Office, West Palm Beach-based bartender Marc Volpicelli, and Randy Rapposelli of Brule Bistro. This one should be a lot of fun. You might even want to consider buying one of those front-row bar seats to watch the show.
Bar Brawls is held every Wednesday night at 9:30 p.m. at Max’s Social House through December 9. Admission is $10. Max's Social House is located at Delray Beach. Visit the Facebook event page.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.