Denver bartenders Jason Patz and Allison Widdecombe, both of Williams & Graham, traveled to New York City last month for World Class U.S., a nationwide bartending competition. Considered the biggest and most celebrated mixology competition in America, World Class U.S. matched Patz and Widdecombe against thirteen other bartenders from across the country. The ultimate prize: the distinction of being named the 2014 Bartender of fhe Year.
This wasn't the first time that Patz and Widdecombe were co-competitors at World Class U.S. In April, they flew to Los Angeles for the regional semi-finals, where they battled fifteen other bartenders from neighboring states to win spots at the nationals.
The final rounds of mixological warfare, held at the Monarch Room in Manhattan, were a showcase of America's most talented bartenders.
"It was pretty insane to be around all those people -- they're all world-class bartenders. People like Charles Joly, Steve Schneider, Julio Cabrera. To be a part of that group was just amazing," says Patz. "Going into it, I knew what I wanted to do -- I wanted to win. But knowing the people I was up against, I knew I would have to work really hard to do it."
Widdecombe, a regular at bartending competitions, also felt the pressure. "I was so nervous," she says. "But I felt like I had more time to prepare, that I was more ready than I was in the semi-finals. It was mostly work. I hardly saw any of New York City, besides the inside of the building. But it was a really cool experience, with really cool bartenders."
World Class U.S. wasn't just about making drinks. The structure of the competition tested bartenders in various categories, including speed, dexterity, creativity and presentation.
There were five rounds of competition, all taking place over the course of two days, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Three challenges were presented the first day, followed by two challenges the second. Individual winners were named in each of the five rounds.
During the speed round, for example, bartenders were given eight minutes to make six cocktails. Patz came within seconds of winning this round. "I was half a point from first place," he says. "I challenged myself for that round -- I created a cocktail menu of ten drinks, and I allowed the judges to pick the drinks. In doing that, I wasted 45 seconds to almost a minute of time. But I still finished all six drinks -- garnished -- with seven seconds left."
Another round called "Spirit Through The Ages" involved choosing a single spirit and building three cocktails that took judges through the history of that spirit. At least one of the three cocktails had to be an original recipe. Widdecombe's choice: rum. "For this round," she explains, "I created a loggerhead, which is an old instrument used to make hot drinks in the Colonial era. So I got a piece of iron with a handle and put it in a box of coals. I made a hot drink by putting the loggerhead into the drink."
Widdecombe's three time-spanning drinks were grog, representing Colonial America; a Mai Tai, a classic from the tiki era; and a modern creation she calls "The Wrinkle In Time," which she often makes behind the bar at Williams & Graham. It contains Ron Zacapa 23-year-old rum, Amer Picon, Amaro Montenegro and muscatel sherry.
In the ritual rheater challenge, bartenders created a sensory experience centered on a specific spirit. Widdecombe won this challenge by staging a Mad Hatter-themed tea party, inspired by the book Alice In Wonderland. "I had a whole tea party theme," she says. "I thought of the Mad Hatter theme, and I thought Lewis Carroll would be most closely associated with gin."
Her cocktail, "Down The Rabbit Hole," was made with Tanqueray Ten gin, cream, green tea powder, simple syrup and Licor 43. She made some tea party-friendly food to go with the theme: tonic syrup cupcakes with a Tanqueray Ten frosting, and a juniper-coriander panna cotta with a citrus syrup. She even dressed as Alice. "I had all kinds of cool props and costumes," she says. "So, that was super fun." Keep reading for more on the bartenders' competition.
For the food pairing, Patz and Widdecombe were given $100 and one hour to go to nearby Chelsea Market, purchase ingredients and then make a cocktail. "That one was a lot of fun," Patz says. "It was really crazy figuring out kitchen time for fifteen competitors who were really competitive and really wanted to win. But it worked out really nicely."
The last round was called Dealer's Choice. Two judges picked three cards which indicated a spirit, flavor or style. Competitors were asked to make two cocktails based on the cards that were pulled from the deck.
Denver's bartenders did their best, but Charles Joly, bartender at The Aviary in Chicago, ultimately won the competition. This month, he'll advance to the the international competition in London to represent America. Bartenders from over fifty countries will participate.
"We haven't received final scores yet," Patz says, "but talking to the different judges, everybody was really, really pleased with everything that Allison and I did. I have a feeling that we were in the top six, if not the top eight."
"It was truly an amazing experience," he continues. "There's nothing I would change about what I did. It was life-changing. I learned a lot, just watching Joly and all the other competitors, and seeing how amazingly prepared they were, the things that they paid attention to. It was cool to see each person's process, how they did things."
"I'm looking for the next thing," Widdecombe says. "I'm looking for opportunities." In 2013, she won the Bombay Sapphire World's Most Imaginative Bartender competition. With the deadline for that event coming up this month, she's already preparing to defend last year's title.
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"I won that last year for Colorado," she notes. "It was very challenging, and I like a challenge. It keeps me busy. So I'll be doing that again this year."