I once was recruited to be a judge in a cheesecake competition, an ordeal that brought me to the edge of gag. More pleasurable, but still gastronomically challenging, was a "best home-delivered pizza" contest; we made Pepe’s the winner because of the way the pepperoni cupped during cooking, allowing for savory oils to gather in each concave slice. I once judged Jello-O molds, and came away equally impressed and disturbed at the contestants’ very serious approach to the competition.
Monday evening at Ware House 518 in Mount Vernon, the judging experience was in every way enjoyable, and not just because alcohol was involved.
There were six congenial and entertaining bartenders trying to have their concoctions declared the official cocktail of Light City Baltimore, the festival of light, art and innovation coming to the Inner Harbor later this month.
Gotta say: Mixology certainly has become high art, and the men and women who practice the science are to be commended for their creativity, skill and enthusiasm.
Each competitor was asked to make a blue cocktail, with DeKuyper Curacao Blue liqueur and Van Gogh Gin as required ingredients. Each bartender brought their own ingredients to the mix, including concoctions from the bars where they work.
Judges were asked to assess each cocktail on its appearance, aroma, taste and "reliability," meaning the degree to which the drink was "batchable" for the large crowds expected at three cocktail sites at Light City Baltimore.
Molly McNulty, who tends bar at Cultured in the new Mount Vernon Marketplace, used pickled pineapple with a touch of jalapeno, cardamom bitters and vanilla for a real taste explosion.
From the B&O American Brasserie, Jenghis Pettit brought lemon juice, coconut milk and jasmine syrup in glass bottles with ceramic swing tops to make a frothy cocktail of robin’s egg blue.
Ware House’s Aden Mohamed, with home-field advantage, used lemon juice, ginger syrup, and an eyedropper full of Pimento Dram allspice liqueur; his cocktail, served in a coupe glass, came out turquoise.
Melissa Ray, formerly of the Owl Bar and found summers tending bar at Oriole Park, wore a stunning blue dress to the competition; she mixed orange and rhubarb bitters, and topped her cocktail with Fever-Tree ginger beer. The sapphire drink pretty much matched Ray’s dress.
Of the drinks presented, my personal favorite was Rob Vogel’s "Starry Night," inspired by the famous Van Gogh painting. Vogel, from Ten Ten American Bistro, used a mixture of St. Germain, the French elderflower liqueur, a blueberry "shrub," or syrup, and lavender bitters that layered beautifully in a slender highball glass. Vogel’s blue was Van Gogh’s night-sky blue, and the lemon twist garnish evoked the crescent moon from "Starry Night."
While Vogel’s entry did not win, I certainly hope he offers this drink at his establishment.
The winner of the mix-off was Eric Fooy’s electric-blue take on a gin-and-tonic.
If there had been points for performance of the cocktail, Fooy would have won. He boom-boxed Eiffel 65’s "I’m Blue" while mixing grapefruit liqueur, lime juice and cardamom bitters ("One drop goes a long way"), before shaking them with extravagant vigor, pouring the cocktail into a tumbler and topping with tonic, a slice of lime and cardamom pods.
Fooy calls this splendid concoction a Glass Slipper. But, between March 28 and April 3 it will be officially called the Blue Hour Cocktail. Congratulations, ole boy.