For the second year in a row, McLain Hedges has won the Viva Sangrita cocktail competition, held on Tuesday afternoon at Linger. A group of 150 cocktail fans packed Linger’s rooftop patio for the annual event, which tasked all nine competitors with creating a sangrita, a non-alcoholic accompaniment to a shot of tequila, which originated in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Competitors paired their sangritas with a shot of Tequila Ocho, the sponsor of the event.
“It feels great,” Hedges says. “It feels damn good. This is my favorite competition of the year. This is a very serious competition, but at the same time it’s a party. It is, first and foremost, about bringing something great to the table. But, beyond that, it’s about having a damn good time.”
Tequila Ocho, made from 100-percent agave plants in Jalisco, is the first tequila to emphasize the notion of terroir, in much the same way that winemakers do. By sourcing agave plants from a particular plot of land, the tequila made from those plants reflects, in its distinctive flavor profile, that region’s altitude, rainfall, soil type and overall climate. Hedges, with his sangrita called “Likker is Quikker,” took it a step further: he based his recipe on his experience growing up in the American south.
Hedges, who moved to Denver in 2012 from Chattanooga, Tennessee, spent most of his youth in Mississippi and Virginia. The flavors and aromas he recalled from his childhood were a direct influence on his recipe. “The elements that I brought to the table with this ended up complementing each other,” Hedges says. “Peaches and peppers and things in there really brought something that was reminiscent of home.”
His recipe is a direct reference to the term “pot likker,” which is the juice left over after boiling collard greens. “That’s what pot likker is,” he says. “It’s cooking down the greens for a very long time and extracting the nutrients. In the south, we serve the greens with a big scoop of that juice that’s been cooking, because all the flavor, all the nutrients, all that stuff is there.”
In fact, Hedges boiled collard greens with smoked pork shank to form the base of his recipe, which also included flavors that he remembers from eating at his grandmother’s dinner table: preserved pears, sugar, cloves, Fresno chiles and apple cider vinegar.
“Sangrita is supposed to be savory, tart, salty, sweet and spicy,” Hedges says, and his recipe hit all of those notes. “It starts with a savory background,” he adds, “but what I wanted to do was add some other things to it to round out everything else in there — and reinforce the terroir element of Tequila Ocho.”
Hedges’s sangrita was accompanied by a small slice of cornbread, another reference to his childhood in Mississippi. “In the south,” he says, “we take corn bread and we sop up the juices.”
Hedges paired his recipe with Tequila Ocho’s reposado tequila, which is aged in used American whiskey barrels for just over eight weeks. That particular expression of tequila exhibited flavors and aromas of the south: flowers, peaches and plums that he grew up with.
“It really shows how the soil and the elevation and all that affects what’s happening in the bottle and in the glass,” he says. “For a distillate to show that, that’s very unique. I think this tequila definitely did that for me this year. This release is fresh, it’s bright, and it really speaks of a time and a place.”
Hedges says he felt a bit of pressure going into the competition, having won last year. “There was definitely a sense of ‘I can’t fuck this up.’” he says, adding that he felt the need to “do as good, if not better than, last year.” But that sort of betterment is something that he’s used to, as a bartender at RiNo Yacht Club. “I think that what we try to do as a bartender, or as a chef,” he continues, “is to make an experience out of something and to take someone out of the moment — and put them into another place, even if it’s only for a moment.”
All competitors earned a bottle of Tequila Ocho’s 2009 Los Pomez extra añejo tequila. Competitors included: Daryl Prior (Mercantile Dining & Provisions), Nicole Laurita and Whitney Nelson (Williams & Graham), Jason Snopkowski (Williams & Graham), Chad Larson (Treaty Oak Distillery), Brian Smith (Classic Wines), and Ted LaMontagne (Comida).
Hedges won a $1000 gift certificate, to use to help defray costs for his trip to New Orleans in July, where the final sangrita competition will be held. Viva Sangrita, now in it’s third year in Denver, is a nationwide competition with regional bouts in eleven markets: Miami, Boston, New York, Chicago, Texas, Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and San Diego. The final contest takes place July 16th at d.b.a. Frenchmen Street, a bar and live music venue in New Orleans.
“I’m super stoked to go down to New Orleans and represent Denver again,” Hedges says. “I’m a transplant, but I definitely call Denver my home.”
The recipes in the competition included:
Front Range Sangrita
by Jason Snopkowski, Williams & Graham
Smoked roma tomatoes
(served with a bag of elote popcorn)
by Nicole Laurita / Whitney Nelson, Williams & Graham
Aji amarillo pepper
by Ted LaMontagne, Comida
Blood orange juice
Golden beet juice
by Brian Smith, Classic Wines
Spruce tree tips
Roasted Pasilla peppers
Estes Park Sangrita
by Chad Larson, Treaty Oak Distillery
Valencia hot sauce
Ancho chile powder
Arbol chile powder
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Los Presidentes USA
by Daryl Prior, Mercantile Dining & Provisions
House-made almond milk