Mike Henderson, beverage director for Root Down, Linger and Ophelia's Electric Soapbox, is out to prove that Denver's cocktail scene is one of the best in the country. On Monday, he competed in the regional semi-final of the Bartender of the Year event hosted in New Orleans by Heaven Hill Brands and Liquor.com. Henderson's winning recipes won him first place, a check for $1,000 and a spot in the championship round, to be held in Puerto Rico in June.
The process of even getting to New Orleans began last August, Henderson says, when he submitted two recipes — one classic and one innovative — along with a short description of the meaning of hospitality. His submission was selected out of more than 600 entries, along with those from 31 other bartenders around the country who convened at Marcello’s Restaurant & Bar in New Orleans for the live contest.
For the event, the contestants were required to make one of their submitted recipes for a panel of judges and then create three bartender's-choice drinks based on descriptive suggestions from the judges. For his interpretation of a classic, Henderson created an improved version of the Corpse Reviver No.1, a drink that's intended as a hair-of-the-dog, but one that the bartender finds lacking. "The Corpse Reviver No. 2 is a great cocktail," Henderson notes, "but the Corpse Reviver No. 1 is flabby and boring — and it sucks as a morning drink."
He chose to replace the standard recipe, a pre-Prohibition concoction of cognac, Calvados and sweet vermouth, with something more modern and refreshing. Using one of Heaven Hill's brands was a requirement of the contest, so Henderson chose Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur. (Domaine de Canton started the Bartender of the Year contest in 2009 before being acquired by Heaven Hill). Here's his winning mix:
Improved Corpse Reviver No. 1
1.5 ounces Domaine Dupont 'Vielle Reserve’ Calvados
.75 ounce Dolin Sweet Vermouth
.75 ounce Domaine de Canton
2 dashes of Angostura Bitters
2 bar spoons of Big B’s Organic Apple Cider Vinegar
Stir and serve in a Nick & Nora Glass with a lemon zest.
After the first round, judges tossed out flavor descriptors that contestants had to use to create three drinks on the fly. "It was very much like Top Chef or Chopped," Henderson says. All of the drinks were judged based on name, appearance, presentation, inspiration, balance, aroma and character; the bartenders earned points for creativity, presentation style and product knowledge. The bartender attributes his win in part to his deep collection of recipes, which allowed him to quickly formulate ideas for the bartender's-choice portion.
The top two bartenders from all of the semi-final events will head to Puerto Rico, so Henderson will be joined by the runner-up in his region, Abigail Gullo of Compere Lapin in New Orleans, along with six other competitors. This isn't the first time Denver has been represented this deep in the event; Sean Kenyon, whose Williams & Graham helped usher in an explosion of quality craft cocktails in the city, won Bartender of the Year in 2010.
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