Over the past decade or so, cocktail competitions have served as proving grounds for rising star mixologists, giving them bragging rights over their fellow bartenders and access to lucrative prizes — and occasionally elevating them into a national spotlight.
But, Sean Kenyon began to ponder five years ago, these contests really only tested one thing — how creatively a bartender could mix spirits, not how well they could actually tend bar. “I helped run a ton of national competitions over the years, and I’ve always thought of them as cocktail competitions, not bartender competitions,” he says. “They don’t test the mettle of the bartender from a functional work standpoint. They push creativity and style. I’ve always wanted to do a competition that could appeal to bartenders from all walks of bartending life — whether they work at a neighborhood bar, a busy restaurant or a nightclub.”
Kenyon began sketching out a contest that would test a bartender’s service and hospitality skills, including their ability to work the well — the part of the bar that services the rest of the room. “Everyone has to work in a service well at some point, and you have to be able to take care of people in front of you. I really cut my teeth working in the well at Steuben’s, getting crushed with seventy drinks an hour plus having to take care of six people in front of me while basically wearing a necklace of tickets. Bartenders don’t want to work with someone who can’t work the well.”
Kenyon found a willing partner in Basalt-based Woody Creek Distillers, which is putting up the spirits for the competition. And on Monday, December 17, he’ll unveil the pilot of a contest at American Bonded that he hopes to take national.
To qualify for the competition, contestants had to present a menu of four original drinks. Those who made the cut from a blind evaluation process were given an additional twelve classic cocktails to work into their repertoire. Come Monday night, each bartender will have an allotted time behind an imaginary bar. They’ll have to set up their station, serve a panel of four judges seated at the bar in front of them, and contend with a rail of tickets from the broader room. And here’s where the public comes in: This event is open to all, so in addition to complimentary Woody Creek cocktails and food that evening, you might be asked to judge some of the drinks coming off the well. Each bartender was also given the opportunity to create a ten-song set, to be spun by DJ Dylan Regan (who also tends bar at Aspen’s legendary Jimmy’s Bistro), and at the end of their round, the contestants will have to tear down and clean up their station and reset it for the next bartender.
“We want to show the full function of an everyday bartender,” says Kenyon. The judges he’s commissioned are experts from around the country, friends of Kenyon's who he says asked to be a part of this contest because of how long he’s been talking about implementing it. The lineup includes New York City's Leo Degroff, Los Angeles-based Yael Vengroff (the current Tales of the Cocktail Bartender of the Year), Santa Clara-based Kate Gerwin (global Bols Around the World winner), and Denver’s own chef Jennifer Jasinski.
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Two finalists will move on to a more intense second round, and the winner will receive a mystery trip (plus bragging rights, of course).
While Kenyon hopes that national versions of this contest will bring in more nightclub and neighborhood bartenders, he acknowledges that the first Denver iteration is fairly Denver-focused. The lineup includes Chris Dunsmoor from the Populist, Alex Jump from Death & Co., Jason Patz from Union Lodge No. 1, Valerie Alvarado from Williams & Graham, Ryan Williams from Seven Grand and American Bonded, Connor Green from Ace Eat Serve, Megan Juntunen from Morin and Union Lodge No. 1, and Michelle Glancey from Pony Up.
“It’s pretty cocktail-centric this time,” says Kenyon. “We want to build it into something that isn’t. A lot of people in our world haven’t worked in nightclubs and learned at that kind of tempo. Those are the people that are going to have the real speed.”
The fun starts at 6 p.m. on Monday, December 17, at American Bonded, and goes well into the night. RSVP via the event link, or just show up.