A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure to serve on the judging panel for the Tequila Rocks competition at A Taste of Tequila and Tamales by the Bay, an “a-maize-ing” event benefitting the Benchmark Institute (a training and performance development organization dedicated to increasing the quality and quantity of legal services to low-income communities). The competition, sponsored by Casa Noble Tequila, saw some of the Bay Area’s hottest mixologists face-off to create the best original Casa Noble tequila cocktail. I was privileged to be in the company of co-judges H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner and barman at Elixir in San Francisco, and Bay Area food and drink writer Virginia Miller.
The competition began at 1pm, when four of the 14 contestants took the stage in front of a crowd of thirsty onlookers. Contestants were provided with Casa Noble Tequila – the required base ingredient – but had to arrive with all other ingredients, equipment, and glassware for presentation. In a mere five minutes, each mixologists prepared three drinks – one for each judge. While the panel sampled each cocktail, each contestant prepared a pitcher so the (now drooling) audience could sample each cocktail. An hour later and another group of contestants took the stage.
After four rounds, H., Virginia, and I added up our scores and deliberated for several minutes. With our winners in hand, we took the stage to present the results. In first place was Brian Means, a bartender at Chow, with his “Council of Four.” Means mixed Casa Noble reposado with Amontillado sherry, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, homemade lemongrass syrup and lemon bitters. It was presented in a coupe glass and garnished with dehydrated Meyer lemon wheels and edible flowers stuck onto it by agave nectar. It was a beautiful cocktail in both taste and presentation. Second place was won by Michael Callahan (who recently won the 42Below Cocktail World Cup) with Jay Crabb snagging the third place prize.
One of the primary characteristics I look for in a cocktail is that it showcases the base liquor, complementing the flavor instead of masking it with other ingredients. This is a mistake I taste too often, and I wonder why anyone would use a “top-shelf” liquor in a cocktail if you’re not going to respect the juice? It was good to see that each of the three winners (and most of the contestants) were successful at this, carefully selecting the right flavors to accompany Casa Noble’s rich flavors.
Nearly all the entries incorporated fresh homemade ingredients. This wasn’t too much of a surprise, given the growing popularity of craft cocktails across the country. What I didn’t expect was the creativity of the garnishes – from the inventiveness and beauty of Brian’s floating flowers and Michael’s superb mezcal-infused apple crisps to the fresh and sculpture-like quality of Jay’s Picositos-dusted jicama slices, cilantro sprig and radish slice.
As a whole, the event was spectacular. The setting inside the beautiful three-story Galleria at the San Francisco Design Center was bright and airy, and there was, of course, plenty of tamales and tequila (and mezcal) to sample. Also on-hand were vendors selling crafts and jewelry vendors, cooking demonstrations by Chef Steve Cortez, and several informative presentations from industry insiders (including Tequila Aficionado Executive Editor Mike Morales, Tequila tour guide Clayton Szczech, and Charbay master distiller Marko Karakasevic).
I would like to thank all the contestants, my fellow judges, Tequila Rocks MC Ashley Miller from Tres,
and all the volunteers, vendors, and participants of this successfully event. Finally, I would like to give a huge ‘thank you’ and abrazo fuerte to event organizer Marta Mora, who did an exceptional job in bringing us all together for this annual event. I’m already looking forward to next year!