The Gran Gala Shakedown began in July with its online contest, and by September, after many submitted recipe entries, a group of high-profile mixology experts including Robert Plotkin, Sean Ludford of BevX.com, The Intoxicologist’s Cheri Loughlin, “The Elixir Fixer” Angie Jackson, Benjamin Schiller of Boka Restaurant Group and Jennifer Contraveos of The Crafted Cocktail judged the cocktails based on taste, originality, ease of preparation, presentation and consumer votes from Gran Gala’s Shakedown site. Arturo Vera-Felicie, head barman at Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange in Kansas City, Mo., won for his Chambeli Cocktail, receiving a $5,000 American Express gift card, as well as being a featured mixologist on the renovated Gran Gala website. Vera-Felicie talked to us about his inspiration for the Chambeli Cocktai, and why considers it a true winner.
NCB: How did you hear about and prepare for the Shakedown?
Arturo Vera-Felicie: I’ve done a few cocktail competitions. I took 2nd place in a Bombay Sapphire competition, and I won the Greater Kansas City Bartending Competition in 2009. I found out about [Gran Gala] through Facebook. A cocktail aficionado from New York posts about different cocktail and bar industry news. I decided to jump on and check it out and do something.
[The competition] took place online during the summer through the end of October. You had to turn in a recipe, and then the judges made the recipes in Chicago to find out the winner. They were trying to do a social networking experiment. Anytime you posted a drink on Facebook, people could like it. And they had a winner every week; I didn’t win any of the weekly Facebook likes. The popular prize was a weekly thing, but the whole grand prize was based on taste, use of the product and ease of make and presentation. Gran Gala and the top industry mixologists made the drinks based on the recipes.
NCB: How long have you been behind the bar?
Vera-Felicie: I’ve been bartending for five years. I came from a dive bar/college bar background. I got introduced to the whole hospitality industry — making drinks, selling beer, upselling food and showing people a good time. It taught me a lot. The job I’m starting now is with the owner of Manifesto Bar. I’ve been working for the owner, and was trained in mixology from him. His restaurant where I’m going to be working is the Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange -- the building used to be in an old hotel before Prohibition -- and the downstairs bar is Manifesto, which was NCB’s 2010 winner for Small Wonder Bar of the Year. It’s a modern speakeasy type bar. The bar upstairs is more designed for service for the restaurant. The drinks take a long time to make because we’re making our tonic, ginger sodas and bitters. It’s the idea of doing things from scratch and hand making drinks.
NCB: How did you work Gran Gala into your cocktail?
Vera-Felicie: I thought of other recipes I learned or classic drinks that use an orange cordial — ones that used more than just a dash or a half ounce of it. The Jasmine uses Campari, lemon juice, gin and Cointreau. One way its made is kind of bitter, and I thought about using Gran Gala, a sweeter cordial, and adding Aperol. I thought the drink would come out balanced, and it did. It tasted like pink grapefruit juice, a little sweet and a little sour.
NCB: What was the inspiration behind the Chambeli Cocktail?
Vera-Felicie: Like most cocktail competitions held by brands, you always want the brand to be the base or the co-base. My cocktail represented both taste and proportion. I made a variation of a Jasmine, making it with dry gin, Aperol, Gran Gala and rhubarb bitters. The cocktail has some sweet and savory elements.
NCB: How many recipes did you try out before you settled on the Chambeli Cocktail?
Vera-Felicie: I made one drink beforehand but I wasn’t happy with it. I was trying to turn the Gin Fizz into a whiskey type drink with a cordial, but it didn’t work. The next week I tried the Jasmine, and it tasted really delicious.
NCB: What did you like about working with Gran Gala?
Arturo Vera-Felicie: The cost. It’s a price point, and the flavor is unbeatable. They’re trying to do a Grand Marnier-type of drink, but it tastes more rustic than Grand Marnier; it’s easier to use in cocktails.
NCB: How did you feel when you won?
Vera-Felicie: When I got my confirmation e-mail, I didn’t realize I had won, and I thought I was just a finalist. Then I got an e-mail from Gran Gala about interviews. It took me four or five days later until I realized I had won the prize. Now we can feature it on our menu and it's an extra buzz to open our new venture.
NCB: Will you do more competitions like this?
Vera-Felicie: The Gran Gala Shakedown was a cool thing. I wish more companies would do this type of stuff. It’s fun to work on the craft and hand making something delicious other than cranking something out because you have to.
The Chambeli Cocktail
Created by Arturo Vera-Felicie, winner of the Gran Gala Shakedown.
¾ ounce Gran Gala
¾ ounce Aperol
¾ ounce dry gin, 2
2 dashes rhubarb bitters
¾ ounce fresh lemon juice
Shaken and strained into a chilled cocktail glass, and garnished with an orange twist.