Now in the seventh year, the Bombay Sapphire contest is the largest competitive cocktail program in North America, with events in 37 cities in the U.S. and Canada. Since another sponsor is the U.S. Bartenders Guild, technique is also judged in addition to imagination, appearance, aroma and taste, so winners have to be precise with their pours as well. Many of the past winners have moved on to open their own bars or moved on to positions in brand management around the country.
All this is to say that the 17 local bartenders who gathered at The Tippler last week to compete for the title, really, really wanted to do well. I was fortunate enough to be one of the judges, along with two Bombay representatives, Gary Hayward and Scott Mayer, and Kevin Brauch of Iron Chef America and The Thirsty Traveler on television. We had a front row seat as mixologists from such local favorite bars as 1808, Anthem, Virago, Lockeland Table, Sambuca, Cork and Cow, Hard Rock, No. 308, The Tippler and others mixed up creative cocktails featuring the exotic botanicals of Bombay Sapphire.
From up close, we could see that there were some definite nerves among a few of the competitors as hands shook and ice cubes flew out of the glasses while they stirred up their creations. Knowing that we had 17 cocktails to get through in the first round and three more in the finals, we had to use our noses a lot and take small sips to make the tough decisions. Trends we noticed were a lot of recipes that featured lavender and violet flavors, which are nice accompaniments to the aromas and tastes in Bombay Sapphire.
Presentation was a part of the score, so it was fun to hear the stories behind the names and creation of the cocktails. Favorite names included the Jon Lovage, the Lost My Keys and Taylor Swift's Dress. The bartenders who really sold their drinks tended to score better in the end.
After the first round, three finalists were chosen to take on an Iron Chef-like challenge with a secret ingredient, which turned out to be the new Bombay Sapphire East Gin, which has more pepper and lemongrass notes than its Occidental brother. The competitors for the championship round were Alan Kennedy, representing 1808 and The Tippler, Crickett Gumper from 1808 and Ben Clemons of 308.
After tabulating scores and conferring briefly, Clemons was chosen as the clear winner. He will represent Nashville in the National Finals in Las Vegas in two weeks, so drop by 308 and wish him some luck. Bring home the win, Ben!