Colorado bartenders face off in a Campari aperitivo competition tonight

A serious bartending scene in Denver has culminated in dozens of cocktail contests, many of which propel our local bar men and women to a national spotlight, where they go up against the country's best.

And tonight, one of the biggest contests of 2012 is going down at Green Russell: Twelve bartenders will compete in the regional finals of the Campari-United States Bartenders' Guild competition.

"Every year, the USBG teams up with a national partner and does a national competition," explains Mike Henderson, president of the Colorado chapter of the guild. "The guild does regional competitions from all regional chapters, and then the winners go on to a national competition. This year, it's the Manhattan Cocktail Classic. The winner of that contest goes to an international competition in Singapore."

One of our locals will have the chance to compete at that level, but first, he or she will have to get through tonight's event, which has already involved an elimination process. Would-be competitors were charged with creating an aperitivo from Campari, which is, says Henderson, a "cocktail designed to stimulate the appetite." Most aperitif cocktails, he notes, "involve vermouth or fortified wine, and they're usually not sweet. They're usually sour or bitter. A classic example is a negroni, but this is a loose interpretation. There's a lot of room for what you want to do."

Bartenders from all over the state were invited to submit recipes to a panel of judges, who picked twelve finalists in a blind tasting process. Now, those finalists will convene to mix their drinks on stage, a nerve-racking exhibition that is as focused on technique and skill as it is on how a drink tastes. "This contest is one of the few that follows the USBG format of rules," Henderson says. "Those rules are very specific; it's sort of a white-glove-and-silver-tray style of bartending. It's fun to see hard-core bartenders really refining their game."

And Henderson reveals that some big names are competing. Here's who you can expect to see:

Justin Lavenue, The Bitter Bar, Boulder Sean Kenyon, Williams & Graham Darrin Gilman Randall Layman, Steuben's Noah Heaney, The Bitter Bar, Boulder Alexandra Parks, Green Russell Michael Cerretani, The Bitter Bar, Boulder Daniel Bjugstad, Pizzeria Locale, Boulder Raffi Jergerian, Elliot's Martini Bar, Fort Collins Robert Leavey, The Broadmoor, Colorado Springs Tara Curry, Adrift Ken Kodys, Root Down

The fun starts at 6 p.m. at Green Russell, and the event is open to the public. While Green Russell won't be serving its regular menu tonight, there will be food and $5 cocktails available -- as well as two free drinks per person.

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