In some cities, a bartender's worth is based on speed, accuracy, and the alcoholic content of their drinks. In Charleston, the standards are a bit higher. The BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival has set out to find the best cocktail mixologist in town with a competition of about 40 bartenders. Each bartender was required to come up with a unique drink using William Grant and Sons' Milagro Tequila or Hendrick's Gin. At the Michael Mitchell Gallery on Wed. Jan. 11, four finalists will present their creations to attendees and a panel of judges who will decide which cocktail will be featured at the festival's opening party in March. After speaking with the finalists about their creations, we just hope the judges (one of which is City Paper editor Stephanie Barna) know how to handle their liquor. Luckily, there will be plenty of nibbles on hand from The Grocery to keep everyone in check.
Brent Sweatman, Biggie's Gastropub, "Jamaican G & T"
Brent Sweatman, bar manager at Biggie's, has taken an interesting yet simple approach to the gin and tonic.
"I try to pick flavors that people know already, and I just try to make them better," Sweatman says. "It seems so pretentious when you see a cocktail that has eight ingredients and you've only heard of one of them. My favorite cocktails are simple, easy, and approachable."
Sweatman is calling his cocktail the Jamaican G & T, featuring Hendrick's Gin, which is infused with floral rose and crisp cucumber flavors. The Jamaican aspect of the drink comes in with fresh-pressed pineapple juice. "It's natural, fluffy, and there's really nothing like it," Sweatman says. He then adds Jamaican allspice liqueur, a potent Caribbean spice. "Allspice and pineapples are kind of like a match made in heaven."
So you have the fruity, the spicy, and then comes the bitter tonic, which Sweatman makes from scratch using all-natural ingredients. "Tonic gets such a bad rap because of the store brand stuff that has all this corn syrup and just terrible stuff for you," Sweatman says. "It's a shame because it's driven a lot of people away from gin drinking."
Sweatman's tonic recipe includes a slew of herbal ingredients, like quinine bark, lemongrass, ginseng, and wormwood to name a few. As with many of his cocktails, the liquor isn't the only property that will make you feel good. "Anything you can make yourself that's healthy and natural — you can feel and taste the difference." —Abigail Darlington
Evan Powell, Fish, "The Aviator"
When planning a meal out, many people think about wine and food pairings. For Evan Powell, though, it's all about which cocktail will go well with your cuisine. After five years behind the bar at Fish, Powell has perfected his craft, earning the title of mixologist, although he prefers nicknames like "spiritual adviser" and "Dr. Evan" a bit more. "To be a mixologist is more than just fixing a drink or being able to make a specialty cocktail," he says. "It's someone who actually studies the craft." Rattling off the different types of botanicals that make up gin like an eager two-year-old reciting the alphabet, it is clear that Powell is indeed a student of the spirits.
Admittedly a fan of Hendrick's Gin, Powell was delighted to learn that he would be able to use his go-to liquor for the contest. His drink, "The Aviator," is based on a classic cocktail called "The Aviation." Along with the Hendrick's, Powell uses elderflower syrup, a French sweetener; Luxardo Maraschino, a very traditional Italian liqueur that adds sweetness and richness; and Togarashi, a Japanese seven-spice mixture, which he makes into a simple syrup. "The seven spices are black sesame seed, white sesame seed, Japanese chili pepper, Szechuan peppercorn, orange peel, ginger, and nori, which is seaweed," Powell explains, making sure to note that both Asian and French ingredients are fused together in his drink, mimicking the cuisine served at Fish.
With all of the components mixed together, Dr. Evan gives his shaker a few firm jolts, loads a glass with ice, and pours out his potion, garnishing it with French brandy-soaked cherries that have been rubbed in the seven spices of the Togarashi and a citrus peel in the shape of a wing, all in line with the theme of aviation. "With a drink, you want sweetness, you want acidity, you want something savory and something rich so it all comes together as one whole picture," Powell says. "It's really important to have a balanced cocktail, because those are the most refreshing." —Ryan Overhiser
Mick Matricciano, The Belmont, "Flowerhorn Sour"
At 26 years old, Mick Matricciano hasn't been mixing up drinks for all that long, but what he lacks in years of experience he makes up for in precision and integrity. Scoring his first real bartending gig at the then newly opened Gin Joint in 2010, Matricciano never wasted a moment of his career pouring $3 vodka-cranberries for his peers like so many other young men and women looking to get into the scene. This rejection of standard Charleston bar practices had less to do with elitism, though, and more to do with Matricciano's personal philosophies. He's a self-proclaimed minimalist with a culinary degree from the Art Institute, a penchant for details, and a fondness for mixing Sazeracs. "When made properly, they're a showcase of proper bartending techniques — flavor, dilution, strength, and aromatics," says Matricciano of the classic New Orleans drink. "If any of those variables are out of balance, it's simply a bad cocktail." And for this Belmont bartender, serving bad cocktails is out of the question, especially since Matricciano is first and foremost preoccupied with making his patrons happy. "There's no better feeling than taking a minute to get to know a person and picking a specific cocktail or spirit suited to their tastes," he says. Matricciano's entry into this year's competition is the Flowerhorn Sour, a versatile concoction made with Milagro Tequila, lime juice, pomelo juice, simple syrup, and maraschino liqueur. It's an ideal illustration of his bartending style, which he describes as clean and focused. "Pomelo is a citrus native to Southeast Asia, similar to grapefruit, and is known to symbolize luck and prosperity," says Matricciano. "And I chose the Milagro tequila because I really wanted the flavor of the spirit to play a large role in the cocktail." He's conscientious about these kinds of choices not only in his creations, but also in his role as a bartender, a job title that he says is important to him. "A very smart man once told me that mixologists serve drinks and bartenders serve people," says Matricciano. "I like to serve people." —Margaret Allen
Jon Calo, The Cocktail Club, "The Great Escape"
Jon Calo attributes his career in mixology to a lot of things. First, it was the poor post-9/11 job market that led him from New York to Palm Beach to become a real estate agent by day and a bartender by night. Then it was the discovery that he enjoyed bartending a whole lot more than selling property. And finally, it was the epiphany that cocktails, more so than wine, can be manipulated. "You're the boss with cocktails," Calo says. "You can make your own flavor profile." And this Cocktail Club bar manager is definitely big on flavor. He says that his favorite creations are ones that start with bourbon or tequila because of the spirits' innate taste.
The Great Escape, Calo's entry into this year's mixology competition, is one such concoction. Made with Milagro Tequila, housemade falernum, lime bitters, agave nectar, and muddled cucumbers and blackberries, the drink is a flavorful homage to warm weather. "I wanted the drink to remind people that summer is coming soon," says Calo. Falernum is an infused mixer from the Caribbean islands made with spices like star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and ginger. "The Milagro Tequila in the drink is also very peppery," says Calo, "more so than other blancos."
The Great Escape may seem a bit foreign to most casual drinkers, but it's a prime example of Calo's bartending philosophy — to get people out of their cocktail comfort zone. Although he says he'll serve a vodka soda or Bud Light to the insistent customer, it's much more rewarding to have his patrons try something new. "We have a saying here," Calo says. "'Let me make you something. If you don't like it, I'll drink it, then make you what you want.'" —Margaret Allen