Cocktails & Spirits

Week Three of Bar Brawls: A Fierce, Macho Showdown Ensued

Last night the Max Group's Bar Brawls bartender competition returned for its third installment, and the competition was looking fierce, a macho showdown between El Camino, Sundy House, and Kapow! Noodle Bar. In a pre-event Facbeook video, each contestant had a few words to say about the impending competition.

El Camino bartender Cody Parker: "Don't get in my way once I get moving there's no stopping me." 

Sundy House bar manager Matthew Swig: "I'm the new kid on the block. Stoked to be here. Bring it, and we'll have a good time. It's a win for everyone as far as I'm concerned."

And Kapow! bar manager Brett Robertson: "I'm coming in hard, and I'm coming in strong. And you better watch out."

Bravado aside, the competition could have doubled as a beauty pageant — a trio of handsome chaps ready to make some killer cocktails.

"We're looking forward to another exciting round of Bar Brawls, where we have the hottest bartenders from hottest bars in town: El Camino, Kapow!," said event MC Bob Higginbothum, who celebrated his birthday that evening. "And, well, somehow Sundy House got thrown on that list."

Indeed, the good looks, charm, and charisma were thick in Max's Social House this week as all three bartenders got down to business making the first cocktail of the evening, a Scotch-based concoction considered a "modern" classic, first created by New York City's Milk & Honey founder Sasha Petraske.

The first mystery ingredient of the night: Bruichladdich Distillery's single-malt scotch whiskey. The drink to make: The Penicillin, a combination of scotch, fresh ginger, lemon, and honey. The men to judge it: Boca Raton-based Damage Studios co-owner and Bartender's Guide podcast host Dan Andrews, Lake Worth's Tiki-Ono managing partner and mixologist Josh Gates, and Florida Culinary Institute instructor John Noble Masi.

Swig was up first. With the confidence born of someone who knowns what the hell a Penicillin is, he swiftly grabbed for each ingredient and began pouring his cocktails — served in short glass with a single block cube — before the five-minute timer could buzz. Judges critiqued it for being too smoky and not having enough scotch presence, but overall the consensus was two thumbs up.

El Camino's pretty boy Parker took the stage next. For a guy well-versed on working with tequila behind the bar, just the mention of the mystery liquor made for a noticeable wince — and a second more obvious one at the name of the fairly new-style classic cocktail. Despite his unfamiliarity, Parker did the two a solid and managed to hit all the ingredients necessary to execute the drink correctly. 

Served straight up with a lemon peel garnish, the judges' only complaints: it didn't have enough ginger and it was a bit too sweet — probably due to Parker's choice of ginger syrup instead of using fresh muddled. Sadly, it was enough to give him the oust from the first round, however.

Last came Robertson — the people's choice of the night, made obvious by a very rowdy cheering squad — who seemed at ease behind the bar after admitting the Penicillin was a drink he had recently learned to make. His rendition was spot on, accentuated with a second blended scotch to cut the tart ginger and lemon combo. Judges had nothing bad to say.

For round two, mystery ingredients made things a wee-bit more complicated. First was Twenty Grand Liquor, a bright pink infused cognac. The third was the exact opposite, a bitter and peppery plant. Try making a drink with fresh chicory leaves and dried, roasted chicory root — a woody and herbaceous plant cultivated for its leaves and roots which are baked, ground, and used as a coffee substitute and additive — and you'll see what we mean. It made for a tough go of it with only 30 minutes on the clock.

The two made the best of it, however. Robertson pulled out a stove — the first in the competition to cook — and began sautéing dried chicory with a syrup blend. He produced three cocktails within the half-hour mark; Swig worked feverishly at the far end of the bar, making two drinks for the judges.

Robertson's first drink was a bright yellow concotion, a smashing good blend of scotch, lemon juice, chicory root, cracked black pepper, and allspice liqueur garnished with a lemon wedge and sprig of fresh chicory. The Kapow! bartender made two additional drinks that event, but the last might have been part of his fall from the final round: judges advised he would have been better off sticking with the first two. The final drink was a miss.

That one misstep left Swig — whose drinks and execution remained consistent throughout the evening — the third-round winner. His two cocktails won rave reviews with the judges thanks to their balance and creativity. That included one of the winning recipes, a bright pink libation made with Twenty Grand liquor, Creme De Violette, vanilla and lavender bitters, brown sugar syrup, and equal parts lemon and lime juice.

Stay tuned until next week, when the showdown continues with Rob Cox of 13 American Table in Boca Raton, James Hartmann of Ian's Tropical Grill in Stuart, and Kareem Lakchira of The Rusty Hook Tavern in Pompano Beach. Bar Brawls will be held Wednesday nights at 9:30 p.m. at Max’s Social House from September 30 through December 9. Admission is $10. Max's Social House is located in Delray Beach. Visit the Facebook event page for more information.

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.
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Nicole Danna is a Palm Beach County-based reporter who began covering the South Florida food scene for New Times in 2011. She also loves drinking beer and writing about the area's growing craft beer community.
Contact: Nicole Danna