I had the pleasure of being part of the judging panel for the inaugural Cocktail Invitational, sponsored by Stoli Canada, at the Vancouver Westin Bayshore's H Tasting Lounge recently.
Seven bartenders from Vancouver and Whistler offered their take on a drink inspired by Stolichnaya Elit Vodka. Distilled in Latvia, the spirit is exceptionally smooth with hues of vanilla and grains.
Sitting at the bar with fellow judges (who included Chambar's Chris Kelly, winner of the 2017 Stoli Key Cocktail Competition held in Florida), I got to hear the story behind each creation. Each bartender had 10 minutes to describe, prepare, mix, shake or stir, and pour their drinks.
Watching these up-and-coming creatives in action gave me a new appreciation for just how much thought can go into a special drink.
There are the technical aspects, of course: aroma, balance, body, finish, and taste; there's presentation and coherence to consider (the drink's appearance and whether all of the components work together); and then there's originality. For the people behind the bar, coming up with a killer cocktail is not just about trying new combinations of liquids, bitters, and garnishes but about infusing a libation with as much meaning as flavour. There were equal parts research and passion put into these cocktails. Take a look:
Andrew Kong, H Tasting Lounge at the Westin Bayshore: Tsamba
The preparation of Kong's winning beverage evoked a Tibetan tea ceremony. He infused buckwheat into the vodka using a sous-vide technique. He infused Westin Bayshore honey syrup with toasted walnut, which gave it a nutty aroma, while Korean rice wine added some citrusy notes. Kong served the cold drink with hand-made brittle.
Reece Sims, the Diamond: The Samovar
The only female competitor in the group, Sims looked to Russian history for the Samovar, which is the name for a metal container used to keep water hot for tea-drinking sessions with friends. The competition's runner-up incorporated Cointreau with black pepper into her drink, which she mixed in a tea pot and garnished with grapefruit.
Robert Kharazmi, Four Seasons Whistler: Field of Greens
Kharazmi celebrated the abundance of summer herbs and vegetables in his popular drink, which had cucumber, lime-leaf bitters, lemon juice, bergamot, lemongrass, rosemary, and more. As a final touch, he placed the cocktail in a glass lantern that he filled with aromatic applewood smoke that spilled forth upon serving.
Kenjiro Bole, Minami Restaurant: Toronto PRIDE
Bole drew on desserts for his lavender-hazelnut sour, complete with chocolate bitters and a floral-rainbow garnish. His drink won the audience's choice.
Regis Simard, Botanist, Fairmont Pacific Rim: Black Swan
Simard presented his cocktail in two types of vessels, including this stunning swan. His drink, which contained Ardbeg Scotch, black-sesame Orgeat, absinthe, egg white, and lemon juice, paid homage to the story of Stoli itself (the vodka was born in 1901) and to Leo Tolstoy,
Fraser Crawford, Hawksworth Restaurant: Rain in July
Crawford's drink included Scrappy's Orange Bitters and Fino Sherry, which he infused with sea asparagus, pine, fir, seaweed, and cucumber. He topped it with orange peel.
Prajeev De Silva, ARC Restaurant & Bar, Fairmont Waterfront: Siyam Sour
Da Silva turned to his Sri Lankan heritage for inspiration for this drink, which featured tamarind, lime, pineapple, and honey as well as elderflower liqueur, salt, and rose petals.