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Splitting Cocktails in Saratoga Springs

March 22, 2019

We’re almost done with the preliminary round of the 3rd Annual Albany Distilling Company Cocktail Contest! Three legs down and one to go. We’ve been to Schenectady, Troy, and Saratoga Spring. Monday the contest comes to The Hollow Bar + Kitchen. At 7pm, some of the talented bartending hopefuls will start stirring and shaking their way into the finals.

If you’ve been following along with the reports from the Schenectady and Troy legs, you know a little bit about how this all works. As one of the official judges, I have a front row seat of sorts, to report about some of the best cocktails and cocktailians of the night. However, as a judge, I’m also cloistered away during the competition. The point of which is to judge the cocktails blindly without knowledge of which bartender made which drink.

There are two rounds. In Saratoga Springs earlier this week, we mixed it up a bit. Fort Orange Vodka went first. Then we sampled cocktails made with Ironweed Rye. We scored each drink on a 50 point scale, found out which drinks went together, and then combined the scores. Then we went into judges session, where we discuss whether the scores match our final perceptions, and adjust accordingly.

That was when things got tense, because the judges were split down the middle.

What continues to surprise me is just how much I enjoy the Fort Orange Vodka cocktails. Because with Albany Distilling Co’s full line of products, the vodka has been much less enticing to me than the whiskeys, rums, and even its brandy made with Nine Pin cider.

But then a drink like the Fort Orange Nitro Fizz comes to the table on a silver platter.

It was a deceptively simple recipe of Fort Orange, lemon juice, lime juice, souchong simple, and orange flower water. Missing from the recipe were the egg white, seltzer, and most likely half and half. But this nitrous charged drink was a straight up stunner.

Rising from the glass like a souffle, it was best attacked with spoons and then sipped. Perhaps it challenged the idea of what a cocktail should be. But in its stark white appearance, one might not expect the depth of flavors luring within. The drink is a riff on the Ramos Gin Fizz, and it played off the traditional orange aromatics. But without the full spectrum of gin botanicals, there was the freedom to add an entirely new flavor. Which is where the smokey flavor of the souchong simple brought this classic to new heights.

Not only was this my favorite drink of the night, but I would drive an hour just to get this cocktail again. Even if it cost close to $20. Which, apparently, is what Brendan Dillon from Hamlet & Ghost would have to charge given how much nitrous is needed to make each drink, and the labor required to execute it. Not only was that my top drink of the round, it was my favorite of the night.

Unfortunately, it’s probably not going on the menu. This is why you need to attend these rounds, because you’ll be treated to creative delights you may never get to experience again.

The Creamsicle Bikini was a close second in that round. It lost a couple of points from me on the name, which didn’t really seem to play out in the drink, beyond the fact that it was another tropically inspired treat punctuated with the orange notes of the vodka. Still, it was a delicious, complex, and creative blending of fire roasted pineapple juice, fire roasted vanilla simple syrup, pomegranate juice, and fresh squeezed lemon. There was also a charred pineapple slice as garnish on the rim.

It was the interplay of the roasted pineapple and roasted vanilla that won me over. This one, we were told at the end was made by Seth Brannock for Flatbread Social. He took advantage of their pizza ovens to roast his fruit and syrups.

There were some other notable drinks in the vodka round that were quite good. A special shout out to the Moloko created by Gabriel O’Brien of 534 Bistro, which is located in the Saratoga Hilton hotel. His drink was influenced by A Clockwork Orange and included freshly squeezed orange juice, half and half, maple syrup, vanilla vodka, and a drop of oleo saccharum.

At the judges table I was the biggest proponent for a drink called the Tang-Hai Hustle. It was a daring choice to submit a beer based cocktail to this competition, and as a beer cocktail it worked well. I’d love to sip this Lost Nation Mosaic IPA topped blend of orange vodka, mango juice, rhubarb bitters, muddled orange peel, and squeeze of lime, on a hot summer afternoon. This entry came from Dave Farnsworth of Henry Street Taproom, and he’s behind the bar on Saturday and Sunday days. So ask for him, and he may just hook you up.

The rye round proved to be more challenging, and two cocktails were clearly in the lead.

The General Mills Milk Punch was simply gorgeous in both the clarity of the drink and the accompanying hand carved ice cube. It was made from rye, brewed black tea, velvet falernum, demerara simple, pineapple juice, scalded cinnamon toast crunch milk, lemon, and allspice dram. It had tremendous depth of flavor, but I found it to be just a little on the sweeter side.

At this level of competition, little things can really tip the scales.

Sage Against the Machine on the flip side was a dark and aromatic modified old fashioned made from rye, sage simple syrup, rhubarb bitters, and just a bit of fire roasted orange-clementine juice. In the glass a fire roasted clementine slice and fire roasted luxardo cherry were muddled together. The whole thing was poured in a glass with a fresh sage leave frozen on top of a single giant ice cube.

The milk punch turned out to be from Brendan at Hamlet & Ghost. Sage Against the Machine was Seth’s creation for Flatbread Social. In this round, Seth came out on top.

These two were neck and neck. In the judges conference, two of us were team milk punch and nitro fizz, while two were team fire roasted fruit. In the end I wasn’t able to lobby for enough points to come over to my side of the fence, and the victory went to the upstart.

Hamlet & Ghost won last year’s competition, and they have nothing to prove. So it will be good to see some more new and fresh talent in the finals with Seth and Flatbread Social representing Saratoga Springs. Although it’s hard to cal Seth new, since he’s been doing this for twenty years.

Come down to Albany Distilling Co’s bar and bottle shop on Saturday, April 6 to see him in action during the finals, and taste what he can do. But before then, I hope some of you can get in on this action this Monday.

And even before that, don’t forget Saturday is Péché Day at Delaware Supply in Albany. This little beer shop is putting our little city on the international map. It’s super cool, and I’m hoping to score a glass or two.

Whatever you do, have a great weekend!

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