“You’ve been Barred!” – the dread phrase contestants at the first ever BARRED! Bartender Challenge did not want to hear. Twelve bartenders from near and far showcased their talents at Basil & Wick’s in North Creek on November 15, hoping to bring trophy and bragging rights back to their bar.
The best ideas are often born when least expected. A casual Happy Hour in the High Peaks board meeting agenda listed the question: Can we do something interactive with an upcoming book reading gig? Whether through inspiration or by blatant theft, we were not surprised when the concept of a Chopped style competition materialized. Based on the Food Network’s popular reality series in which chefs are given a mystery basket of ingredients that they must incorporate into a finished dish, BARRED! would do the same with cocktails.
Planting the seed with Jane Peter at Basil & Wick’s last winter, we let it germinate. Every once in awhile Jane would say, “We really should do that bartender competition.” Usually we’d nod in agreement. This time we pressed, “When?” and settled on a date just weeks away. The BARRED! Challenge was on.
There was much to do. Trophies, contestants, prizes, rules, judges, mystery ingredients, promotion, staff – one by one we devised a plan for each. Our limited advertising budget caused us to rely heavily on social media and local press. As one week turned to two with few inquiries, we began to worry. With Jane’s optimism and our persistence, we pressed onward, distributing flyers to as many local bartenders as we could find. Two contestants gradually grew to seven solid possibilities. Jane promised more. As the deadline approached, we shopped for enough secret ingredients for four heats and a final round.
We hit the stores, methodically pawing and squeezing our way through the produce section where we knew rare and exotic possibilities flourished. Pam, pricked by a prickly pear, tossed it back for one less perilous. Overripe persimmons were rejected and bananas were thought to be just too dominant. Star fruit was sensuous in flavor and appearance and clearly fit the bill. Our list proved inadequate so we relied on impulse to fill our curious basket, which was soon full of such delicacies as carrot juice, wasabi, Kool-Aid, Nerds candy, and Marshmallow Fluff. The cashier kept her comments to herself as she peered over her glasses at the odd assortment ambling along the conveyor. Our purchases were hauled into the lab at Pammy’s Pub for pairing and general compatibility, incorporating a system that included a liquor, a flavor, a fruit or vegetable, a liquid, and a “toy.” Items like the Fluff, Nerds, and Kool-Aid were playful and fun, not to mention difficult, and each mystery basket would include one.
The day arrived quickly. Armed with basket contents, a plan, and confidence that our seven contestants would show up, we arrived early at Basil & Wick’s where Jane presented a list of seven more competitors. With the doubling of contestants, Kim, a meticulous planner, promptly panicked. Pam became energized, excitedly taking charge. Judges, contestants, and emcee all seemed to arrive at once. Entrants came armed with their own tools tools of the trade and a maximum of two of their own ingredients. We knew this was serious when Zack Blair entered carrying an over-sized bag over his shoulder. Contenders’ cheering sections soon followed, filling the dining room. It was show time!
Celebrity judges Lake George Mayor Robert Blais and Adirondack Almanack editor John Warren brought an air of credibility to the event, as well as a desire to drink. We also appointed ourselves as judges, bringing nothing but the desire to drink. Every round required judges to sample each of the three cocktails prepared by the bartenders, then rate them in four categories worth five points each for a possible total of twenty points per judge. A tally of all judges’ scores resulted in that round’s winning total.
The first heat brought all the bugs to light, but the system improved with each subsequent round. Kim handled the score sheets and tried to keep judges John and Bob on task while sniping photos whenever she could. Jane, like a Vanna White of time, tended the clock and somehow managed to greet patrons and oversee everything else. Contestants scrambled – some nervously, some with calm precision – to stir, mix, blend, or shake a captivating beverage within the seven-minute time limit, eliciting cheers from supporters.
Progressing through five rounds in two hours required constant communication and troubleshooting. Mark Piper’s easy rapport and fast thinking helped keep the pace, despite the fact we had not given him any time to prepare. Jeannie Russell, veteran Basil & Wick’s bartender, somehow managed to prep the stage, stock the temporary bar, handle logistics, wait on a table or two, and even compete in the event! Kerri Lambert efficiently met the demands of the main bar while fulfilling ingredient requests from contestants. Thom Badgley, another Basil & Wick’s staffer, was truly a modern day Mr. Belvedere, delivering the trays of carefully arranged concoctions to the judges’ table, while providing the name of each cocktail and any pertinent information about its creation. He managed to clean up after each round, maintaining decorum and calm throughout the event. Thom even set aside display model drinks for public view following the event.
Contestants Nicholas Vigliarolo (Brown’s Malt Room, Troy), Peter Carner (Long Horn Restaurant and Pub, Lake Vanare), Angie Mead (Panther Mt. Pub, Chestertown), and Maggie Morgan (freelance bartender) earned their way into the final round where they faced a basket containing Pimm’s Cup, tamarind nectar, ginger paste, fresh thyme, and apples. Bartenders got right to work, serious in purpose and methodical in preparation, occasionally stealing sidelong glances at their fellow competitors.
An unexpected tie brought the judges’ heads together in conspiratorial debate until Mayor Blais generously offered to cover the cost of a duplicate prize (Happy Hour in the High Peaks book and Passport) for third place winners Maggie and Peter. Angie took second place ($50 Basil & Wick’s gift certificate). BARRED! first place ($100 cash and cocktail shaker trophy) went to Nicholas with his Slim Pimm cocktail. The Slim Pimm was created with lemon, thyme, tamarind, confectioner’s sugar and a dab of ginger (muddle, add ice, shake). Garnished with cherries soaked in Bacardi 151, then torched, it was served in a pilsner glass.
A review of score tallies revealed some interesting data. Observation 1: Female judges were more generous with their points. While we gave out plenty of fives, John Warren and Mayor Blais awarded only one or two among all five rounds. Observation 2: Male judges were not swayed by contestant cleavage, despite one blatant attempt at persuasion by an unnamed participant. (Female judges also did not appear influenced by these displays.) Observation 3: In the final round, all judges were more benevolent with points. We can only conclude that they were under an influence not related to contestants’ charms.
The first annual BARRED! Challenge was the first of its kind in the region and has piqued an interest in holding more challenges in other regions. We’re ready to take this on the road. And we definitely think it’s time for a BARRED! Challenge reality show. To view all the pictures from the event, visit our website or Facebook page. See what you missed!