Next week, the Max Group will give 24 local mixologists a chance to showcase their skills in front of foodies and fans alike during the inaugural Bar Brawls competition. The weekly bracket-style battle is inspired by Esquire Network's Knife Fights and has been modeled after the group's recent Chef vs. Chef culinary competition that wrapped up on Wednesday, September 24, at Max's Harvest in Delray Beach.
The 11-week competition featuring local crafters of cocktails will be going down each week at sister establishment Max's Social House beginning September 30, and will be showcasing some of South Florida's most talented mixologists as they duke it out for the title of best bartender. The single elimination competition features some of the area's best barmen (and women), hand-picked by Max Group staff from Stuart to Fort Lauderdale. Bar Brawls — sponsored by Deerfield Beach-based Republic National Distributing Co. — will take place every Wednesday night at 9:30 p.m.
This past Wednesday the competitors were introduced before the start of the grand finale for Chef vs. Chef — the last of the 15-week culinary throw down culminating with the crowning of winner James Strine, executive sous chef for Cafe Boulud in Palm Beach — giving us a prelude of what's to come with Bar Brawls.
At 8 p.m. all 23 bartenders (leave it to Delray Beach's Brule Bistro bartender Randy Rapposelli to be the only one to not show up — we're actually impressed there weren't more of these nefarious mixologists missing) packed into Max's Harvest for the event's official draw party, followed by a rowdy introduction ceremony. Max's Social House general manager Bob Higginbotham emceed the event, introducing each bartender before making the official bracket picks.
"Thank you everyone for coming out to support America’s favorite pastime – getting wasted," said Higginbotham. "We've got 11 weeks of South Florida’s best bartending talent doing what they do best: eight balls and bitching about bad tippers."
What these bartenders will actually be doing, he continued, is facing-off and mixing-up cocktails featuring secret ingredients each week. A panel of rotating judges will narrow it down to one bartender every night, each winner moving forward in the bracket-style competition.
Like boxers heading into a real brawl, each bartender was lead through the front door with his (or her) very own ring girl (or ring guy) — cheesy entry song and all — before making a lap around the main dining room amidst cheers and jeers, before Higginbotham delivered an official introduction.
And from the shenanigans going on, we can already tell Bar Brawls is going to be one major shit show. Like Chef vs. Chef, expect a lot of energy, a lot of action, a lot of debauchery, a lot of drinking — and, of course — a lot of fun. Unlike Chef vs. Chef, the actual Bar Brawls set-up will present a few new twists.
"You've never seen a bartender competition done like this, but we knew we wanted to model it after the Chef vs. Chef competition," said Higginbotham. "We had so many people who wanted to compete, we couldn't do it one-on-one. From a timing point of view, putting three bartenders in the first few rounds was the best way to get it done. We didn't want to miss a week and lose any momentum."
The first group of bartenders to duke it out will be Craft Cartel's Bobby Brown, Free American Table's Scott Daus, and Apeiro's Tiffini Grant. During the first six weeks of the competition, Bar Brawls will pit three bartenders against one another in the first round; each will have five minutes to create a classic cocktail using a mystery spirit. Next week, after just a few minutes, the first of 24 bartenders will be eliminated almost immediately, while the remaining two move on to the next round.
The remaining pair will have 30 minutes to use that same mystery spirit along with both a mystery liqueur and mystery "non-spirit" ingredient to make a minimum of two cocktails. Judges, a panel of three that will rotate each week but will always include at least one member of the local chapter of the United States Bartending Guild, will tally scores based on each drink's presentation, taste, aroma, and use of all three mystery ingredients.
"Each bartender that makes it to the second round is encouraged to make as many cocktails as they want, but keep in mind that won't necessarily give them any advantage," said Higginbotham. "More doesn't necessarily mean better when it comes to the judging."
After the first eight weeks, the competition will be cut down from 24 to eight contestants, at which time the remaining bartenders will move on to the semi-finals in weeks 9 and 10. The remaining two will then go head-to-head during the final competition on Wednesday, December 9. The winner receives a grand prize, all- expenses paid trip to the New Orleans cocktail event, Tales of the Cocktail 2016, considered the world's premier cocktail festival.
They also get to call themselves the "best" bartender in South Florida, which we're sure will come in handy at some point in their careers.
Bar Brawls kicks off at 9:30 p.m. at Max's Social House on Wednesday, September 30. During the competition the restaurant will be open to the public. Full table service will be available during the event until 11 p.m., after which a late night street food menu will be available from 11 p.m. until closing. The outdoor bar will be open during the competition and afterwards. There is a $10 entry fee that gets you one free drink, and all proceeds will benefit the Richard David Kaan Melanoma Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public on skin cancer and melanoma.
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.