July 22nd, 2008
The best use of swag ever
Late Friday morning, walking into the Hotel Monteleone in New Orleans with my coffee, I bump into Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Eugene, Oregon. He’s one of the many blogger-bartenders featured at Tales of the Cocktail this year. He tells me that at 9:00 p.m., he, Daniel Shoemaker from the Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon, and Erik Adkins from the Slanted Door in San Francisco are planning a mix-off at the pool on the roof of the Monteleone. The kicker is that their ingredients can come only from Jeff’s swag bag — the pile of nips, mixers and other cocktail accoutrements that sponsors give presenters at Tales. I say I’ll be there, thinking, ‘That’s the best idea I’ve heard all week.’ I tell my fellow Bostonian and Tales blogger Misty Kalkofen about it, and she wants in.
We arrive at the pool at 9:00, and the contestants are milling around a table laden with a bunch of small liquor bottles, three shakers and three hotel-room tumblers. They see us and say, “Great, our other two judges are here.” It turns out we’re not just there as casual bystanders. We are going to be picking the winner of Swag-Off ’08. OMG! The third judge is Keith Waldbauer, bartender at Union in Seattle and blogger of Moving at the Speed of Life. Not only that, Natalie Bovis-Nelson, aka the Liquid Muse, has brought her film crew along to capture the contest for the Tales webisodes she’s producing this year. (See Webisode #4 — the event falls somewhere in the middle of the six-minute piece. The footage of the actual judging didn’t make the cut, unfortunately.)
The only contest rule is that the French, grape-based G’Vine Gin must be used as a base, since the swag bag features it in greater quantity than any of the other spirits. (Jeff’s detailed account of the contest, including approximate recipes, is on the Tales Blog.) We’re talking serious creativity with a dash of sarcasm. Erik scents his glass with the smoke of a Navan Vanilla Liqueur aromatherapy candle. Jeff muddles Sour Green Apple Cocktail Candy with bitters. And Daniel spices his drink with chili powder. (The corresponding drinks are, in order, the Day Spa, the Green Mile and the Seat of the Pants.)
We judges declare Daniel’s Seat of the Pants, with its inventive melange of Angostura bitters, agave nectar, gin, grappa, Campari and, yes, chili powder, the winner. Jeff’s is a close second — it’s a bit too fruity for us (I liken it to Tropical Lifesavers), but it is actually a balanced cocktail. And Erik’s is the oddball, with the most gentle flavor of all despite a whopping two ounces of gin.
Later that night and the next day, everyone involved in the swag-off tells everyone they know about it, and word of this brilliant idea spreads quickly. Walking into the Napoleon House for lunch on Saturday, I bump into one of the drinks world’s biggest celebs, David Wondrich. He says, “Hey, I heard about the mix-off last night. That sounds great.” Damn, I think Swag-Off ’09 is going to need a bigger pool.