Baltimore bartenders mix it in cocktail competition

Old Bay-infused drink takes the top prize at Angels Rock Bar

  • A bartender prepares drinks during a mixing contest held at Angels Rock Bar in Power Plant Live on Tuesday.
A bartender prepares drinks during a mixing contest held at… (Handout photo )
March 17, 2011|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Monday was a night of many firsts at Angels Rock Bar.

It was the first time the bar, and possibly the United States Bartenders' Guild, presented a cocktail-and-tattoo bartending competition.

It was the first time some of the competitors submitted original recipes for a mixing contest. And it was the first time I had judged one.

Bartending competitions usually serve two purposes: to plug the brand that sponsors it and the bar that employs the winning bartender.

But my goal was an altogether different one: to get to know some of the local bartenders I hadn't yet met.

Altogether, 12 Maryland bartenders submitted recipes — and tattoos — for consideration in Monday's contest, and they were narrowed to six, said Sean Wachsman, a spokesman for Tuaca liqueur, which sponsored the contest.

The competition came together last month. The United States Bartenders' Guild asked bartenders in 10 cities to submit recipes that included Tuaca in some way.

Bartenders wouldn't be judged just on the cocktail; their body art would also be graded. To be chosen, they would have to have a potent drink as well as come up with a compelling story behind their tattoo.

Tuaca, the liqueur made by Southern Comfort that sponsored the contest, called it "the first annual Drinks & Inks Competition."

The winner gets a photo spread in Inked magazine and a trip in April to New York City to compete in a national cocktail-and-tattoo contest.

Baltimore was the fifth city to host the contest. By Monday night, four other cities, including Denver and Phoenix, had chosen winners. Atlanta, Oklahoma City and Seattle are up next.

Sean Wachsman, a spokesman for Southern Comfort, said Tuaca's popularity in those locales determined the cities chosen for the contest.

When I got to Angels, the bar was more crowded than it would normally be on a Monday night — some 80 people or so — but still not enough to fill the cavernous club, where top-40 music was blasting from the speakers.

Brendan Dorr, the award-winning bartender at B&O American Brasserie who has judged many of these contests, was the second judge and showed me the ropes.

"The point of competitions like [this] is to promote Tuaca," he said, getting straight to the point.

But at the same time, these contests are "something exciting for bartenders, mixologists and enthusiasts to look forward to so they can show off their skills and inventiveness," Dorr said.

Wachsman told me three of the chosen bartenders had dropped out for various reasons. The remaining bartenders were Trent O'Connor of the Horse You Came in On Saloon, Michael Bulmash of Angels Rock Bar and Dawn Carpenter of Annapolis' Acme Bar & Grille.

We were instructed to judge the drinks on appearance, taste, creativity, performance and garnish. The tattoos, on the other hand, were to be judged on intricacy, body placement and cohesion.

The competition began a little after 8 p.m. with Bulmash, who prefaced his performance by saying he wasn't a fan of Tuaca (no doubt displeasing to Wachsman, who was the third judge).

The boxy bartender took a few minutes to make his own version of a mojito, which he called a Tuajito, and included crushed blackberries, lemon juice, soda and mint.

The effect was tasty but too sweet. Dorr said it needed more acid to counterbalance the sweetness of the drink.

"The difficulty with any liqueur is balancing out the sweetness while still showcasing that flavor profile," he said. "Tuaca is a sweeter liqueur, but with the right amount of acid from lemons, limes or any other citrus, a very playful cocktail can be achieved."

Next up was Carpenter, who played to the guys in the crowd in skimpy black bikini and shredded jeans. Her back was covered in an elaborate tattoo of a woman's face.

Her cocktail was simple: Bailey's Irish Cream, Tuaca and chocolate syrup as garnish. Safe to say that the tattoo was more impressive than the drink.

O'Connor, who's been at the Fells Point bar for 31/2 years, decided to make something with a hometown flavor.

"I grew up on the water, crabbing, and I wanted [the cocktail] to be inspired by where I grew up," the Annapolis native told me later.

The result was a cocktail that was punchy without being overwhelming. Most most of all , it was surprising. It was the first time I had ever had Old Bay seasoning on anything.

"I usually stay away from competitions. It's never been my thing," O'Connor said later. This one caught his eye because of the tattoo component.

It turned out that making the drink wasn't all that complicated. And neither was judging who made the best cocktail. It simply came down to which one I wanted to keep drinking.

O'Connor doesn't know if he'll patent the winning recipe or what his chances are at the finals.

"I don't know what I'm going to do with it, but if something tastes that good, I want it to be known, and that it's being served at the Horse You Came in On Saloon," he said. "That's the bottom line: it's all about the bar."

Starting today, for six bucks, his Tuaca Chesapeake will be available at the Fells Point bar.

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