On April 20, 2016

Vermont bartenders impress

Walter Blasberg
Walter Blosberg of the North Hero House, Borden E. Avery Innkeeper of the Year.

Best bartender in the state named at tourism summit

By Dave Hoffenberg

Last week 10 of Vermont’s best bartenders competed for the title of “Vermont Bartender of the Year”. This is the second year for this competition. The event was held at Killington Resort’s Mahogany Ridge Bar and was part of the Vermont Tourism conference. The competition was unique because the bartenders could not come with a pre-made recipe because they did not know what liquor they were going to get. They also could only use the ingredients that were there. Ten distilleries donated liquor. Each contestant chose a number from a hat, then had six minutes to concoct a recipe and make five of the same drink for the judges. It was a frenzy, with contestants and their barbacks running back and forth for ingredients. The contestants could use any ingredient that was on the table. Each contestant had his or her own mixing station.

The event organizers were Cam Keitel and Ashley Wolf from Hotel Vermont. Keitel said that every year the Vermont Department of Tourism names the best chef and Best Innkeeper, but never named the best bartender—until last year. Keitel’s boss Hans Van Wees won the best innkeeper last year and his idea was that nothing goes better with a good meal than a good drink, so why not name a Best Bartender, too. Keitel said that beginning the Best Bartender competition went hand in hand with forming the Vermont Bartenders Guild.

“We saw this as a great stepping off point to get a lot of publicity behind the VBG,” Keitel said. Keitel is also the treasurer of the VBG.

“Coming to the Vermont Bartender competition is like going to the 10 best bars in all of Vermont in just one evening,” explained Keitel. “That’s incredible and it almost seems impossible to say because  there are so many good bars in the state. To have the 10 absolute best in one place, in one evening and sample their best work is incredible and you can’t do that anywhere else.”

Here are the bartenders who competed last week and the liquor that they picked for the competition:

  • Justin Hyjek—Whistle Pig Rye
  • Drew Kacik—Appalachian Gap Mythic Gin
  • Noah Kort—Sapling Perc Liqueur
  • Jory Reeves—Mad River Vanilla Rum
  • Matthew Farkas—Metcalfe Rasberry Liqueur
  • Aaron Wisniewski—SILO Cucumber Vodka
  • Sydney Stockmann—Appalachian Gap Ridgeline Whiskey
  • Defending champion Martha Mack—Smuggler’s Notch Hopped Gin
  • Deven Unruh—Caledonia Spirits Tom Cat Gin
  • Killington’s own Michelle “Chel Lie” Morciglio from Moguls Sports Pub—Stonecutter Single Barrel Gin

The panel of judges included: Jonathan Pogash (Northeast regional president, United States Bartenders Guild), Maxstrom Overstrom-Coleman (president, Vermont Bartenders Guild), Sharon Mayer (Killington Resort Conference sales coordinator), Patrick Delaney (commissioner, Vermont Liquor Control) and Stephen Cook (deputy commissioner, Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing).

The first round of the Bartender of the Year event was held privately from 3-6 p.m. The judges picked four of their favorites to advance. The judges picks were Unruh, Farkas, Reeves and Stockmann.

The public was let in at 6 p.m. to sample all of the drinks and vote for their favorite. The crowd favorite (made by Noah Kort with Sapling Perc Liqueur) also made it into the next round. The top five drinks went on to compete in what was called the “Chopped Round” where each contestant was given a black box, which contained the same ingredients, and each of the five bartenders had to make a drink. The liquor was Smuggler’s Notch Litigation Wheat Whiskey and the three mystery ingredients were Sweet Miso, Tango Tangerines and Cinnamon Toast Crunch Cereal.

Wolf came up with those mystery ingredients and said,

“We were looking for different components that go into a cocktail classical,” explained Wolf, who is responsible for those three mystery ingredients. “We have our acid with the tangerine and the sweet miso because Umami cocktails are really trending right now, but we also needed something weird. Something out of left field to throw you off so I went with the cereal—it is reminiscent of childhood, people get to play with it and it’s something fun.”

They could add anything they wanted from the “pantry”—where other ingredients for drinks were kept. For this round they had 10 minutes and it was just as hectic as before, if not more.

Kort, the crowd favorite, look as if he were performing a concert. He drew the largest crowd and they were hooting and hollering for him as he mixed his drink with flair.

One of my favorite drinks was from the Wisniewski brothers who have a company, Alice and the Magician. They started out of Burlington 10 years ago, but in the last year they’ve kicked into high gear and are now in bars and restaurants across the country. They have flavored aromas that they spray into a cocktail. I first tried their bloody mary without the aroma and then they sprayed in an herb. It’s amazing!

There are so many different aromas you can choose, even tobacco and leather. “Our entire mission is to create flavor through aroma,” Sam Wisniewski said. “Aroma can account for 80 to 90 percent and we are trying to introduce back the natural true aromas that you would get from slicing a grapefruit. So you can transform and enhance flavor just by misting on top. It gives you all the joy as if you are picking fresh herbs or ingredients without worrying about creating, muddling or doing the other pieces.” You can add this to drinks or food.

Third place went to Stockmann from Pizzeria Verita in Burlington; second place for Reeves from Waterworks in Winooski and the Half Lounge in Burlington; and first place and Vermont’s Bartender of the Year went to Farkas, who works at the Mule Bar in Winooski and who is also a brand ambasador for Caledonia Spirits.

His winning drink was apply titled “Father and Son.” His father Steve is a long-time bartender at Bromley and he could not have been prouder. Before the finals Steve said, “If he wins, he owes some of it to me.”

It was a special moment for Farkas to have his father there. “I grew up in the kitchen with him,” Farkas said of his father. “I took his work ethic to the next level. Essentially I came from a food world and worked behind a bar. I’m also the secretary for the USBG (Bartenders Guild) VT Chapter. For that we’re trying to get all corners of the state to come together and produce great drinks and have a good time with each other and really step up the level of quality and notoriety in Vermont as far as bartenders are concerned. We want to be like chefs and known for what we’re doing.”

Steve said that his son is a master chef with drinks as he is just an old shots-and-beer guy himself. He said his son has taught him a lot. Farkas added, “I’m happy to be representing everyone of these spirits we had here today.” Farkas was a part of it last year held at Hotel Vermont, and being in a base lodge had its challenges, but he liked it. “It was like tying your arm behind your back and working a competition. The best bartenders show up and get their hands stuck behind their back.”

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