The third time was the charm for Bryan Dayton, owner of Boulder's Oak at Fourteenth, which is currently being rebuilt after a spring fire: In his third national cocktail competition of the year, the bartender bested 47 other top-notch professionals from across the country to take home the grand prize: Dayton is GQ Bombay Sapphire's most inspired bartender in America.
"It was crazy, just crazy," says Dayton of his victory, which followed two days of competitions. "Mark Stoddard was grabbing my shoulder. It was surreal."
Stoddard, head bar man at Boulder's Bitter Bar and an international cocktail champion in his own right, accompanied Dayton to Vegas on Sunday to provide moral support and to lend his hand as a barback. That first night, Dayton went head-to-head with nearly four dozen competitors in a classic cocktail competition, mixing his own Bombay Sapphire recipe for three panels of judges. The next night, he headed over to XS Nightclub with the rest of the crowd, where the top ten finalists -- including Dayton -- were announced to the group.
"We did a bar chef-style competition," recounts Dayton. "It was like Iron Chef." The secret ingredient? Bombay Sapphire East, a new gin that's similar to the original Bombay Sapphire except that it has pepper and lemongrass added to it.
And there was another twist, notes Dayton: "They wanted a cocktail inspired by your market -- so that meant Colorado for me."
The bartenders had a couple of minutes to take stock of a table full of fruits, vegetables and herbs and note their tools -- which included burners, CO2 cartridges and juicers -- and then they had twelve minutes to make a cocktail.
Dayton's final creation, which he says he finished just under the wire, was a blend of juiced pears; simple syrup infused with sage, fennel and juniper; blackberry; Bombay Sapphire East; yellow chartreuse and a touch of lime. He named his take on the smash cocktail "East Collegiate Heights" for the Collegiate Peaks, because it was inspired by mountain botanicals and the Western Slope.
Mixing finished and specs noted, each bartender had five minutes on stage to make drinks for the judges, which gave Dayton time to size up his competition. "I was surprised nobody else really did any bar chef stuff," he says. "Two guys did stirred drinks, and everyone else just muddled. I was the only one who juiced or used a burner for simple syrup."
It paid off. After the judges deliberated, they came back and announced the top three, starting with second and third place. "I was like 'Oh, fuck,' after I heard second and third," he says. "I had felt pretty good about top three, but then they announced first place, and it was just crazy."
After a night of celebrating, Dayton did a few local interviews and then got suited at Ted Baker. Then it was off to a GQ photo shoot, because he'll be on the cover of the December issue as part of his prize.
And a few months from now, Dayton and the second and third place winners, who hailed from San Francisco and Miami, will jet off to London to compete in the international competition against bartenders from all over the world.
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Reflecting on his win, Dayton's especially proud to bring the honor home, and give Colorado another boost in the national cocktail realm. "It's great for me for personal reasons, but, again, it's about Colorado -- Colorado's just insane," he says. "Mark Stoddard with 42 Below, Sean Kenyon with Domaine, me with Bombay -- we're not a flyover state anymore; there's a great bar culture here in Colorado. The precedent has been set: We can hang with other markets."