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The Capital Region’s Best Bartenders

April 12, 2019

How do you know what’s best? Well, one way is asking 24,000 people and going with their collective wisdom. But we know how that goes. Another is having a dedicated panel of thoughtful tasters work their way around the region, and evaluate things based on a set of specific criteria.

The second, is how the FLB works its tours. It was also the methodology for All Over Albany’s Tournament of Pizza. And it’s also how I approached finding the best dozen donuts for AOA.

Is the process flawless? Hardly. But in going through the evaluation, a lot more is revealed than merely what brand has the most unaided or aided recognition within the community. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s one driven by tasting, and ideally is never just the opinion of one evaluator.

Which is why I was thrilled to be invited to judge the 3rd Annual Albany Distilling Company Cocktail Contest. It took up a month of Mondays just to get to the finals. And just last weekend, Seth Brannock representing Flatbread Social and the city of Saratoga Springs took the prize back to Spa City.

But that’s not the whole story. How did he win, and what else was revealed? That’s where things get even more interesting.

Blind judging over two rounds is challenging. As a judge, you have no idea round to round, who made what drink.

While most of the judges though Seth’s “#PeachThis” cocktail was the best drink of the Ironweed bourbon round, for me it was a close second. This interesting combination of heat and sweet was just to habanero heavy for me. And speaking with him after the event, it turned out this batch of habanero peppers was spicier than the ones he had used in practice.

My favorite drink from the bourbon round was something called “King of Thebes” which was built on a quarter asian pear muddled with a half-ounce of earl grey syrup. That was combined with three sprigs of time thyme and an ounce and a half of Ironweed bourbon. The mixture gets shaken and served over crushed ice with a lemon twist.

It turned out that this beautifully balanced and unexpected bourbon cocktail came from Renee Matthews at New World Bistro Bar. So why didn’t it win? The drink that was served to the judges suffered from a dilution problem. It was just too thin and the water muted all the flavors.

But for my tastes, I’d rather a drink be a touch too dilute than aggressively spicy.

The second round was based on Albany Distilling Company’s 10th Pin apple brandy. It’s a product that I enjoyed quite a bit, and had just recently finished the bottle I had bought in the fall. At home I had been mixing it with a dash of Laphroaig Quarter Cask, because I found the combination of apples and smoke really spoke to those feelings of fall, and helped to balance the sweet apple profile that is so characteristic of Nine Pin ciders.

Perhaps I should have recognized Seth’s hand in his “Thyme Bandit” cocktail where he placed a thyme sprig directly on top of a large ice cube in the glass. He used a similar approach when he won the Saratoga round, but with a sage leaf. This man and those herbal cocktails. He’s definitely got the touch.

Even still, my favorite drink of the night was Lauren Bingenheimer’s “Forbidden Fruit”. Much like her Ironweed rye sour from the first round of the Schenectady leg of this competition, it was the simplicity, balance of flavors, and her ability to make the base spirit shine, that won my heart. This had an once and a half of the 10th Pin, one ounce of pineapple puree, a half ounce of lemon juice, and a half ounce of Luxardo Maraschino cherry syrup.

Reading that out loud, it sounds like it would be too sweet. It sounds like the brandy would be entirely overwhelmed by the pineapple. But it wasn’t. The pineapple helped to bring out some of the floral apple notes, and the whole thing was just beautiful.

So why didn’t Renee or Lauren win? Well, the winner is based on the total score across both rounds, with the people’s choice votes adding points along the way. Both of Seth’s drinks were very good indeed, and while Lauren and Renee each had one drink that really knocked my socks off, their other drink wasn’t quite at the same level.

I have a visit on the books to New World Bistro Bar, and I’m going to have to take a closer look at the cocktail menu while I’m there. Renee is a serious talent, and I’m thrilled to have had a taste of her approach to drinks.

And Lauren at The Glass Tavern took second place in the whole contest, but she made two of my three favorite drinks over the course of this tournament. I have to find a way to get out to East Glenville for a drink some Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night. The third was the Fort Orange Nitro Fizz from Brendan Dillon at Hamlet & Ghost.

But my hat is off to all of the competitors who threw down for this contest. Winning a tournament like this is a big deal. However, everyone who competes wins, in that they are getting out, engaging with their community of bartenders, and helping to elevate the craft. That said, congratulations once again to Seth. If Flatbread Social was off your radar, hopefully he has helped to put it on the map.

Many thanks to Albany Distilling Company for the invitation, to the members of the Yelp Elite Squad who came out along the way, and to my fellow judges for making this event so much fun!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. -R. permalink
    April 12, 2019 12:56 pm

    “That was combined with three sprigs of time”…

    I think your editor is slipping. :-)

    • April 12, 2019 2:21 pm

      Grawr! Today, I was the editor. Actually, I suppose you were the editor. I’m on it. Thanks for the catch. Sorry for the slop.

  2. April 15, 2019 12:18 pm

    Reading this post and missing your insightful food knowledge and what seems to be a continued elevation and expansion of the amazing culinary scene in the Capital Region! Hope all is well – I need to get back out there soon :(

    • April 15, 2019 12:35 pm

      Thanks! Let me know when you’re back. It would be fun to grab a drink and catch up!

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