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Cocktails at Dawn

April 27, 2018

Let’s see what I can remember about last weekend.

On a beautiful, chilly Saturday evening I was dropped of in downtown Albany. I had been talking about how easy it is to walk around the city, and was enticed by my own advice. Just to increase the distance of my walk, I first went down to the Times Union Center and picked up a quick slice of pizza.

There was no time for a proper meal. I had places to go and things to drink. The whole reason I came downtown was to attend the final round of Albany Distilling Company’s second annual Capital Region Cocktail Contest.

But first, I had to drop by Nine Pin Cider for my bi-weekly 26er.

The walk from the Times Union Center to the Warehouse District was perfectly lovely. It was an easy stroll. And while there may be a couple of blocks without that much going on, the only urban decay one has to pass is that sketchy looking railroad bridge.

Maybe someone can paint it like a rainbow and put some lights up on that thing. More than anything, it needs to be transformed into a beautiful gateway to Albany’s Warehouse District.

I almost always bump into someone I know at Nine Pin, and this was no different.

The walk from Nine Pin to Albany Distilling Company’s Bar & Bottle Shop is ridiculously easy. My plan was to get a good seat for the cocktail competition, but in the end, it turned out not to be that kind of cocktail competition. Even though this was the second year, and the final round, it was my first time seeing this competition live and in person.

Here’s how it worked.

Each competitor had their own table, set up with the bottles, ingredients, and tools required to make their drinks. The judges were sequestered in a different room entirely. The bartenders made full sized drinks that were served blindly to the judges, and while the official judging was being conducted samples of the drinks were being poured at the tables for all of the attendees.

There were a lot of attendees. So the competing bartenders worked tirelessly making batch after batch of their entries for the thirsty peanut gallery. And it’s quite likely that some samples tasted differently than the official drink submitted for entry.

We can go into the reasons for that later if you like, because right now I want to get back to the meat of this competition.

The official judges were Albany Distilling co-owners John Curtin and Rick Sicari, 2017 Cocktail Competition Champion Jeff Krenn, Emmanuel Treski (Illusive) and Katy Atchison (Wellington’s). Treski is probably best known for his tenure at Speakeasy 518, and I first met Atchison when she helmed the cocktail program at Ama Cocina. Both are serious local talents.

Actually, that’s what I admire most of all about this competition—it’s the serious local talent.

It wasn’t that long ago when there was only one place to go for an Aviation, because there was only one bar in town that stocked creme de violette. And I can remember how hard it was to find a local bar that stocked orange bitters for what I considered to be a proper Martini.

Now, that has changed, and this cocktail competition is highlighting just how broadly our cocktail culture has spread.

There were four preliminary rounds of this contest, and each one was held in a different corner of the Capital Region: Albany, Troy, Schenectady, and Saratoga Springs. And in each of these places, multiple bars sent their top bartenders to compete for a spot in the finals.

Beyond the fact that we have enough places making serious cocktail to execute a competition like this, what makes this so special is that when bartenders come together in battle, it makes them better. Not only does it give them a reason to crank up their game, but by seeing what their peers are doing, it allows for the cross-pollination of ideas.

So, who made it to the finals?

Schenectady was represented by Josh Mack of Rare. Saratoga Springs fielded Sonia Castellani of Hamlet & Ghost. Abena Okyere of Speakeasy 518 won the Albany bracket. Lindsey Miller of Brown’s was there for Troy.

The first round consisted of cocktails made with Albany Distilling Company’s Malt whiskey. The second round all about the ADCo Rye.

The malt round was taken in all kinds of different directions. Rare used it as the base of blackberry bramble. Hamlet & Ghost made a tiki style drink with coconut and rhubarb, balanced with orange and lemon juices. Speakeasy 518 smoked lemons and limes to make a complex sour. Brown’s went peach to the max for a ginger peach fizz.

My two favorites from this round were the drinks from Rare and Hamlet & Ghost, with Hamlet & Ghost taking it by an edge. The blackberry bramble was most delicious when eating the blackberry garnish while drinking the drink to maximize the blackberry flavor. But for me, a bramble is defined by its ice. So I gave this round to Hamlet & Ghost.

The rye round was also interesting. Rare used this lovely roasted barley simple syrup combined with house made leather bitters. Hamlet & Ghost was working with actual smoke at their table and had a used charred stave from one of the ADCo barrels that all went into a play on the sazerac. Speakeasy was pushing the citrus with grapefruit juice and the spice of fresh ginger. Brown’s also went smokey with a smoked maple sour.

My two favorites from this round were Hamlet & Ghost and Brown’s, with Brown’s taking it by the edge. I need to get a bottle of that smoked maple syrup. It was amazing.

At the end of both rounds, the crowd favorite was Brown’s, by a nose. The judges, by an equally slim margin, declared Hamlet & Ghost the winner.

But we all win.

Yes, Sonia Castellani gets the fame and the large prize box filled with boozy goodness. But her winning cocktails will be featured here in Albany at the ADCo Bar & Bottle Shop. How they are going to recreate that winning drink with all the smoke will have to be seen. And at least one cordial she created involved cooking fruit sous vide. But I’m sure ADCo is up for the challenge.

Hamlet & Ghost probably did not need to be put on the map. However, even as Albany’s cocktail culture has been expanding, in the early days of that expansion the story was about one great place in Albany and a bunch of regional upstarts. But Hamlet & Ghost is not just another great option to get a good cocktail. It’s a regional powerhouse in and of itself.

If that wasn’t clear before, it is now.

As a postscript, when the cocktail competition ended, I hoofed it over to CH Evans to try one of the new brewer’s new beers. More than anything, though, I wanted to play some pinball at Excelsior. So I walked there too.

Although I did stop in at Speakeasy 518 along the way to break up the trip. There I met Joe. He’s the new guy at the helm of this storied spot, and his first menu is now out. One thing in particular is going to drive me back there. Sooner rather than later. But I had pinball to play. And a Lyft to catch back home.

In the end, it was a great way to spend several hours in Albany, walking around, and tasting some of the best the region has to offer.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 27, 2018 11:37 am

    I don’t even know if I want to broach this…on your walking travels did you ever encounter anyone or a group of people that would have made a solo female walker uncomfortable?

    I’m not sure your experience as a solo male could be comparable to a solo female. I know Albany isn’t an inherently dangerous city but I also know what a gauntlet Pearl Street can be for female walking alone on a Saturday evening.

    For me it’s not about urban decay and the ugliness of the surroundings, it’s about the sometimes ugliness of the people you meet on the way.

    I wanna walk through the park in the dark
    Men are scared that women will laugh at them
    I wanna walk through the park in the dark
    Women are scared that men will kill them
    I hold my keys
    Between my fingers
    ~Nameless, Faceless – Courtney Barnett

  2. albanylandlord permalink
    April 27, 2018 1:05 pm

    I’ve been waiting for the story about the results of the competition – thanks for sharing! And it is very thought provoking to hear your thoughts about walking downtown. For me Lyft is what changes this – If I drove downtown I want to keep my car with me as I move around. If I take a Lyft downtown it becomes a hassle to take a Lyft from spot to spot so the walking becomes more likely. I have walked from the Palace neighborhood to the Egg for a show and found it a pleasant walk.

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