Getting a taste for winning

I was reminded of the Roman poet Ovid’s saying, “A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace,” because as I was on my way to judge a cocktail competition in St. Helena I saw a road sign for Ovid Winery, which is in the hills above Oakville.

Since I was the first to arrive, I milled around the spacious room that is the bar at Press Restaurant. Owned by Leslie Rudd (who also owns Dean & Deluca, next door) Press features San Francisco’s No. 209 gin prominently among its very Dean & Deluca decor. No surprise since Rudd owns that distillery, too.

No. 209 sponsored the event and had assembled a panel of veteran bartenders to serve as judges. The distillery also provided the gin. Contestants were students from the Culinary Institute of California in St. Helena. We the professionals and they the amateurs, squared off over 3 feet of wood.

According to many national surveys, the fear of public speaking ranks among Americans’ top fears, surpassing fears of illness, flying, terrorism and often even the fear of death itself. Now imagine your entire job is an exercise in public speaking. Whether it’s an audience of one or 50, when you bartend, you are always on stage, always conspicuous. Your every action and every word is being observed, evaluated and often criticized. Those of us who do it for a living take it for granted, but for the uninitiated the first time you step behind the bar can be a little intimidating.

Such was the case on this particular Tuesday. Some of the contestants’ hands were shaking so violently they almost dropped their bartending utensils. Another contestant got her high heel stuck in the rubber mats and nearly fell. Yet another banged the shaking glass so hard on the bar that all five judges jumped. There were other simpler mistakes, forgetting or misidentifying ingredients or using the wrong proportions — all of which are attributable to nerves.

But, in this new bartending age creativity is king and the drinks the students made were extraordinary. In the past I often told would-be bartenders not to go to bartending schools because in all my years of experience I had never worked with a graduate from one. These days things are a different. If you want to bartend at any of the better places around, you will probably need some culinary experience and what place better to get it than at a culinary school’s accelerated beverage program? You just never know when you might be called on to make your own bitters, create a simple syrup or deglaze a gastrique, all in the interest of making cocktails.

Unfortunately contests by their very nature have winners and losers. But losing a “taste” competition doesn’t really mean much. Taste is a subjective thing. Just because I like something doesn’t mean that you should or will; it is possible you won’t. That’s the beauty of individualism.

Here are four simple things that I have learned from judging and entering competitions:

• It is always best to go last. For some reason later always does better.

• Be practical; many restaurants are looking to put cocktails onto their lists. The more complicated the drink the less likely it will make it.

• Quantity of ingredients doesn’t make up for quality of ingredients.

• Avoid cliché. Experienced judges know all about absinthe and chartreuse. Using them is not going to impress anyone.

Having to judge a contest means that you have to make a choice. And after sipping through all the egg whites, obscure liqueurs, fresh herbs, fresh juices and unlikely combinations we did just that. Nine drinks later we had our winner. If you happen to be in St. Helena on a sunny spring day, you might consider swinging by Press Restaurant to enjoy a Spring Buzz. I call it a winner, and so do four other professional bartenders. But then, of course, you always have the right to your own opinion.