Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — I should’ve had this in the bag from the beginning. A media mixology competition with rum as the primary spirit of choice. In sports lingo, that’s a slam dunk, the shortest of field-goal kicks, the easiest of easy putts. You see, I spend many summer afternoons in Toronto on a rooftop with a bottle of rum, some ice and a chaser of ginger beer, along with a laptop computer and a cellphone: The office essentials for any active travel journalist. Mixing rum drinks — to my taste — is an activity I’m so well practiced at, I can (and have) done it blind (during an end-of-the-night drinking contest in the Caribbean once … details need not be revealed).
So, Monday night, when I was asked to participate in a mixology competition at the SpiritHouse in Toronto’s King West neighbourhood, I didn’t hesitate. The winner snagged a trip to Trinidad & Tobago — even more reason the stars aligned in my favour, I thought. I was born in the West Indies and have relatives near Port au Spain, the capital of Trinidad. Victory seemed fated. My confidence at that point belonged on the top shelf.
Then reality set in.
First it was a pro-am competition, meaning the media contestants would be paired with one of the three professional bartenders vying to represent Canada at the 2013 Angostura Aromatic Bitters Global Cocktail Challenge. Much of any advantage I had went down the hatch right there, I thought. With an able mixologist tutoring each of us, winning the media competition came down to who could best follow the contest rules and the instructions of their bartending partner.
Besides, I wasn’t competing against librarians and tea-totering accountants. These were fellow journalists and clearly had the looks of gentlemen expert in the art of raising a tumbler glass.
My victory was in jeopardy, so I turned to Dave Delaney. He’s the reigning world champion of the Angostura competition and was one of the judges for Monday’s contest. If anyone knew what it took to win a mixology challenge, it was him. Delaney is the bartender at Citizen Public House in Boston, Massachusetts and has spent much of this year representing Angostura at competitions around the world.
“The key is balance,” Delaney said, offering advice that sounded like something Yoda would say to Luke Skywalker. “Everyone has different palates. There can be nerves in a situation like this but I always treat the judges the same as I treat a customer. If you have a drink that’s not too sweet, not too strong, then you have a chance to appeal to most tastes.”
Balance can be elusive. Not convinced I had what it took to use Delaney’s wisdom to full advantage, I turned to another reliable source for advice: Twitter.
Of the three professional finalists, Shaun Layton was the one I was familiar with. This publication has even called him the best mixologist in the country and his drinks are a reason why L’Abattoir in Vancouver is often cited as one of the nation’s stellar places for a night out, including placing No. 7 in the 2012 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide. I tweeted a direct message to Layton asking if he could team up.
The pairings were already determined, though. Layton and Oliver Stern of the Toronto Temperance Society would be collaborating with my challengers while Tarquin Melnyk of The Manor Bistro in Edmonton was saddled with helping me.
I didn’t know of Tarquin, nor had I heard about Edmonton’s cocktail scene.
“First thing to decide: Do you want to make something shaken or stirred?” he asked.
A flash of disaster came into my head. I imagined all kinds of things that could go wrong with the first option: a metal canister flinging out of my hand and into the head of the photographer in front of me, or worse, behind me and into a bottle of Hennessy, sending pricey cognac dripping down the SpiritHouse shelf; or a shoulder socket being thrown out as I tried foolishly to do a Tom Cruise “Cocktail” impersonation as I shook the cocktail like a maraca; or ice crackling out of the glass because of my clumsiness and landing in front of Delaney and the other judges like a broken dream.
“Stirred,” I told Tarquin adamantly, no James Bond cool in my answer at all.
“Okay, but shaken drinks aren’t so hard,” he said.
“I’ll stick with the stirred.”
Any doubts I may have had about Tarquin then disappeared faster than a bottle of Jose Cuervo during a Cancun happy hour. Tarquin wanted me to win this. He came equipped with a special simple syrup he brought with him from Alberta that included lemongrass and ginger, a favourite flavour of any rum drinker.
Canada’s Best Mixologists Compete in Toronto
Even though we had 10 minutes to mix two glasses, Tarquin felt keeping things simple was the key to victory. I was going to make an Old-Fashioned, substituting rum in place of bourbon that’s usually dispensed for the classic cocktail. Each drink would contain six dashes of Angostura bitters, one half-ounce pour of the tangy simple syrup, two full ounces of Angostura rum and a garnish of orange peel. That orange peel wasn’t just plopped in either. It was curled and squeezed, spraying the drink with citrus oil, then swirled around the glass and finally dunked into the liquid. The orange scent would tempt the nose before the drink met the judge’s lips.
I made a practice cocktail away from the eyes of the crowd, the judges and the other competitors. As far as I could tell, there was balance.
Tarquin, though, still had two other tricks for me. One was the use of an ice globe, rather than cubes or crushed ice. Ice globes are kept wrapped in aluminum foil and are the size of a snowball. They cool the glass faster than cubes and melt slower, keeping water from upsetting the balance of that first crucial sip. Tarquin’s final brainstorm was the use of 17-year-old Angostura rum rather than the 7-year-old variety that was readily available. This was no easy find, since we weren’t allowed to open a fresh bottle, but Tarquin managed to grab one while I was prepping the glasses with the ice globes and dashes of bitters.
The drinks were mixed fast. Too fast, we worried. I had 10 minutes and after the final spin of the swivel and plop of the orange peel, only three had passed. If the ice melted too fast, the rum would be diluted, the balance would be upset. The wait was on for the other competitors and then for the judges to taste.
Along with Delaney, the judging panel included author Christine Sismondo and Dave Mitton of the Harbord Room. They gave each of the three drinks careful thought, convened in a room adjoining the SpiritHouse’s bar and returned after five minutes with a decision.
My drink won and I was off to Trinidad in February for Carnival — all thanks to Tarquin Melnyk and his coaching and ingredients.
I will be joined by Oliver Stern, who beat Tarquin and Shaun Layton to win the pro competition and the $5,000 prize. Stern will compete against 15 other bartenders from around the world for $10,000 and a chance to follow Delaney as the Angostura world champ.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I think something like this was possible when I got into bartending 10 years ago,” Delaney said. “Cocktails have become such a big part of what bars and restaurants do. It’s pretty mind-blowing being a part of something like this.”