For many, bartending begins as a job that serves as means to an end. All too often, we’ve seen struggling college students take to the craft as a quick way to pay off student loans. But for those who get immersed in the creativity of mixing and muddling behind the stick or for those who can strike and hold conversations with any Joe Schmoe that parks it on their barstool, bartending is much more. Beyond the taste of the cocktail, the art of bartending is about the overall experience. To celebrate those who’ve achieve status in the industry and a reputation for providing stellar service, some of the top bartenders in Los Angeles recently gathered to battle in the Second Annual LA’s Best Bartender Competition.
Among the best of the best, a winner was named, inheriting the crown from last year’s champ, Matthew Biancaniello, of Library Bar. Sponsored by Karlsson’s Gold Vodka and Table20.com, the competition drew five bartending finalists to Elevate Lounge in Downtown Los Angeles on Sunday, along with roughly 200 guests and a panel of six judges. Bartenders were nominated online by their fans and voting was open to the public for 21 days until the People’s Choice winner was announced and automatically named a finalist in the competition: Joe Brooke of Next Door Lounge. As for the four finalists, the judges chose two by taste testing their submitted recipes (using Karlsson’s Gold Vodka) and hand picking the final two bartenders.
In an effort to recreate the “bar experience,” the competition was designed so that each bartender individually faced the judges from behind the bar and had 20 minutes to memorize their individual drink orders, whip them up in a creative, efficient way and engage them in conversation as if they were bar patrons on a regular working night.
“We get to interact with each bartender one on one and get the full experience this way,” said Bricia Lopez, one of the judges and owner of LA restaurant, Guelaguetza. “A bartender’s competition shouldn’t just be about the cocktail, it’s about the whole experience of being with them at the bar.”
Each bartender was asked to make three classic cocktails (i.e. Manhattan, Negroni, Martini etc.), one cocktail with Karlsson’s Gold Vodka and two bartender’s choice creations. Each competitor was critiqued and scored based on taste and presentation of the cocktail, personality, creativity, cleanliness, speed and accuracy. As if pressure wasn’t already high enough, among the scrutinizing judges was King Cocktail himself, Dale DeGroff. Flown in from New York, DeGroff is a famed mover and shaker in the cocktail industry – the only bartender to ever win a James Beard Award – and famed for revitalizing the craft cocktail scene post-Prohibition.
“What I love about Los Angeles is there’s this resurgence of craft cocktails. The market here has exploded with talent over the last five to eight years,” DeGroff said.
In an effort to encourage and praise bartenders who embrace the art of craft cocktails, this competition serves as further evidence that changes seen over the last few years are not simply a trend, but more of a movement. Competing with the likes of New York City and San Francisco where the cocktail scene is thriving, LA is a fierce contender. The event’s founder, Trevor Smith agrees, noting the importance of having heavy hitters such as DeGroff at the competition.
“Having Dale DeGroff come out to judge was our signal to the LA bartender community that we are serious about creating a rigorous system for evaluating bartenders and naming the best of the competition,” Smith said.
Judging alongside DeGroff was Biancaniello and Lopez, as well as U.S. Bartender’s Guild LA Chapter President, Marcos Tello, James Beard Award-winning pastry chef and television star Johnny Iuzzini and LA Times Food and Nightlife writer Jessica Gelt. Popular booze writer and cocktail enthusiast Dan “The Imbiber” Dunn also hosted the event and put together a competition recap for his The Imbiber Podcast with co-host Mike “Stretch” Roberts.
Over the course of several hours, numerous cocktails, bartender interaction, questioning and deliberation, the judges selected the winner of the 2011 LA’s Best Bartender Competition. Taking home a Bar Keeper Silverlake $100 gift card, Karlsson’s Gold Vintage bottles, a trip to the 2012 Tales of the Cocktail, Manhattan Cocktail Classic or SF World Spirits Competition and most notably receiving a Los Angeles billboard with a photo announcing their name as LA’s Best Bartender, Justin Pike of The Tasting Kitchen in Venice received first place honors. All smiles as fans cheered him on, Pike accepted the award with humble gratitude and attributed his winning to focusing on the overall bar experience.
“For me, half the battle is the mixology aspect, and then the other half is talking to people and knowing what to say and looking at them,” Pike said. “I was trying to consider that while I was in there. These people already know what a good drink is. Beyond that it’s about looking them in eye and smiling.”
And that’s exactly what all of Los Angeles will see when his smiling mug is revealed on a giant billboard at Wilshire and Sweetzer on October 24th. Post-competition celebrations were held at The Varnish where DeGroff made a rare appearance behind the stick, alongside fellow bartender Eric Alperin. DeGroff’s wife, Jill DeGroff was also there, signing copies of her latest book of cocktail industry-inspired illustrations and stories, “Lush Life: Portraits From the Bar, Series II.” Order a copy of “Lush Life” here.
Congratulations to Justin Pike and all of the finalists named below:
1st Place – Justin Pike, Tasting Kitchen
2nd Place – Joe Brooke, Next Door Lounge
3rd Place – Devon Tarby, The Varnish
4th Place – Brian Summers, Harvard & Stone
5th Place – Daniel Zacharczuk, Bar | Kitchen