Monday, February 24, 2014

Day 288 - Judging a Mixology Contest

I have never judged a mixology contest. In fact, I had never been to a mixology contest before today. This occurrence in the course of my “I have never...” year was largely a chance happening, as I was unaware a mixology contest was being held in Madison until just a few weeks ago. My discovery of the event, titled the Madtown Shakedown, came as a result of a rather random post of in my Facebook feed, which spurred me to do a little more research on the event. That effort led me to the Madtown Shakedown website, which showed the event would include some of the Madison area’s best bartenders and would provide anyone the opportunity to judge for a $10 donation to the R.E.A.P. Food Group. Realizing the opportunity was a unique way to gain a new experience and to help a good cause, I immediately decided to make time to attend. In turn, I made my way to The Wise bar and restaurant this evening for some fun and relaxation after a busy weekend of travel.

Hotel Red - The Wise

Feeling much the same I did after our nine hours of travel time yesterday, Amanda and Megan decided to join me in my “I have never...” experience for the day. After arriving at the location of the event, we were quick to grab a table in the judge’s area and settle in for the event. There we chatted for a bit as we waited for the event to begin, wondering what the experience would entail. In time, we learned the contest would include five mixologists that would be tasked with creating a unique drink using standard bar stock and a series of mystery ingredients they would not know until they took up their position behind the bar.

Let's do this!

Intrigued by the prospects of the event, Amanda, Megan, and I turned our attention to the small portable bar positioned at the front of the room just as the first mixologist approached to start the event. As he looked over the bar supplies a bit of surprised, and announcement indicating the event was ready to begin rolled over a small set of speakers positioned in the corner of the room. On cue, the bartender quickly set to work filling and rimming glasses with a variety of syrups and liquors. To my surprise, he showed little hesitation working with the mix of known and unknown materials. In a matter of minutes he had a concoction of citrus, honey, and liquor at the ready, and he was ready for the group to try his invention.

The first competitor

After letting the special guest judges take the first sips of the drink, the bartender promptly made large batches of the drink for the rest of the judges in attendance and took a position at the back of the room. Eager to get a taste of the first contending cocktail, Amanda, Megan, and I were quick to grab some samples of the drink and return to our table, where we happily sipped away at the sweet and somewhat tart drink.

Round four

Round five

As we did so, the next competitor made her way toward the bar and almost immediately set to work stirring up a drink of her own design. Comparable to the first competitor, her comfort and confidence behind the bar resulted in her completing her mixture in a matter of moments. With a little bit of flare and a lot of expertise, she worked her way through the drink before explaining her approach and drink design to the crowd. Like before, we watched on as the guest judges took the first sip before returning to the back of the room for our samples. Our first sips of the drink forced smiles onto our faces and drove us to compare notes on its quality almost immediately. Given the pace of the event and the deliciousness of the first two submissions, it was clear it was going to be a good night.

Our judging crew

This pattern continued as the remaining three bartenders each took to the bar and displayed their mixology skills. Using oils, syrups, herbs, and a little bit of fire, each of them created a unique drink that stood out against each of their competitors. As the competition drew to a close Amanda, Megan, and I acknowledged our decision in judging the competition would be a tough one, but we ultimately agreed one competitor stood out among the rest. In turn, we submitted our votes as the contest peaked with a final round of samples and a flurry of votes.

Soooo many drinks...

Putting in the vote

With all the votes submitted, Amanda, Megan, and I took up conversation over our remaining drinks as we waited to hear the results of the competition. In a pleasant surprise to cap the evening, Rachael and our friend, Katrien, decided to join us for the tail of the event, which sent us hunting for more samples to provide them. The result was a table laden with contest submission samples that carried us well beyond the announcement of the Madtown Shakedown winner. Although our choice for the best drink of the night only came in second place, we reveled in the excitement of the contest and the enjoyment of the cocktails that had emerged from the night’s competition. By the time the event was ready to draw to a close, our spirits remained high and our excitement remained undiminished. That outcome was all I needed to know attending tonight’s event was a wise decision.

The winning announcement

When I arrived home after the event tonight, I sunk into my sofa and smiled at the outcome of an entirely unplanned new experience. Although I had no intentions of making a mixology contest a part of this journey, the fun, laughs, and good drinks I shared with some amazing people tonight made me happy it had found a way into my “I have never...” year. Sure, we didn’t get the outcome we were hoping for after casting our votes. However we did get to see some amazing talent in action, we were able to taste some drinks that stood out among the cocktails I have experienced in my life, and the money we donated to participate is going to a great cause. With that, I have every reason to say tonight’s experience was one worth having.

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