If you’re a regular reader of the What’s Shakin’ section of NCB Mix, you know cocktail competitions litter the landscape today. From regional battles with modest rewards to the next Shake it Up! competition -- held during the 2011 Nightclub & Bar Show and now boasting a $25,000 purse – as well as yearlong international throwdowns with luxurious prizes, the competitive field is wide and deep. One of the most interesting contests isn’t held on behalf of a giant supplier or a new cordial; it’s the annual Vinos de Jerez competition in Jerez, Spain, in which bartenders serve a drink involving sherry from his/her bar’s menu, and defend it in terms of presentation, creation and food matches. The deadline for entry in this year’s competition is next week, so we thought we’d check in with U.S. Sherry Ambassador Andy Seymour.
NCB Mix: There are so many cocktail competitions around now — what's different about the Vinos de Jerez contest?
Andy Seymour: There are so many competitions these days that focus on the cocktail itself, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but these cocktails can be created in a flash at the end of a shift with a contest deadline approaching. Because of that, many times the cocktails one sees don’t really speak about anything; they are just a recipe and a name. The entire idea behind the Vinos de Jerez competition is that the cocktail has to have a purpose. It starts with having to be on a menu currently, so that it is something that the bartender makes and has to serve to the guests at his or her bar. This means that the bartender has to believe in the cocktail that they are entering. The cocktail is also judged on how well it matches with food and what dish or dishes that bartender thinks it should accompany. This is critical for the Vinos de Jerez competition because so much of what makes sherry great is its ability to match with food, and the cocktails should be able to make that same statement. The judging will also include substantial marks about what inspired it, how well it utilizes sherry in the drink and how the bartender communicates all of these things to the judges, who are essentially the guests at their bar. It’s our belief that by having all these criteria we get drinks that are real, that will resonate with people and help them to appreciate and understand sherry through the eyes of a great bartender.
NCB Mix: Forcing bartenders to think about the food pairing for the drink is unique in competitions, I think, and really speaks to sherry's various characteristics. But that concept is generally outside the experience of most bartenders, frankly — does that make this a sort of graduate level contest?
Seymour: I think a lot of bartenders are already thinking about food pairing, especially when they choose sherry in a cocktail because of its natural affinity for food. But even if they are not, it really isn’t that difficult to do. What do you like to drink the cocktail with, and if you haven’t thought about it, then what kind of food does it make you want to try? Pairing cocktails with food allows for a certain amount of flexibility because many drinks will go with more than just one style of food, so we just ask the bartenders to take the extra step of thinking about their cocktail not just as its own entity but how it can make food better. As professionals who have the ability to guide people in their drinking decisions, we need to always remember that it is the food that should always shine. The food is the star and we should be able to create drinks that go well with that food. All we do is ask the entrants to think the cocktail all the way through. Again, hopefully this gets us bartenders and drinks that are going to be the best for a customer who walks up to a given bar and places an order.
NCB Mix: Now that bartenders are getting more accustomed to participating in these sorts of contest, has that changed the quality of the entries?
Seymour: It’s tough to say what exactly it is [that’s changing] — whether it’s the number of competitions, the increased focus on the craft of bartending or just getting more people exposed to sherry and how well it plays in cocktails — but the number of quality entries keeps going up. Each year ,not only do we get a higher volume of entries, but the decision on who makes the finals gets harder and harder. We pick 10 bartenders to compete for the final prizes and it has gotten so tough to choose those winners. The last two years specifically, we felt as if we could have taken the second 10 who didn’t make the finals and hold a competition that would have been our best yet -- great drinks with well thought out and thorough answers to all the questions we ask! Needless to say, we are beyond excited to see what is coming this year.
NCB Mix: What attributes do sherries bring to cocktails that can't be found elsewhere?
Seymour: The range of sherry is so broad that there are an almost unlimited number of flavor profiles with which to experiment. Whether it’s the light, crisp flavors of Fino and Manzanilla, the nuttiness and complexity of Amontillado, the diverse flavors that make up the Oloroso category or the rich, fig-dominant sweetness found in Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez, there literally are hundreds of different flavors to incorporate into cocktails through sherry. Part of what makes the competition so much fun to judge is that we get such a range of styles of drink to try. Sherry works in light, refreshing drinks, in rich, boozy drinks, in appetizer-inspired cocktails and ones that would stand alone as dessert. The diversity makes it exciting. Honestly, I think that is the main reason that today’s bartenders have gravitated to sherry, because they are all looking to find new, interesting flavors that will make their cocktails even more delicious. Sherry fits that bill so well because it always integrates into cocktails without overpowering.
NCB Mix: Sherry cocktails aren't commonly found in Jerez — what do the Jerezanos think about the competition?
Seymour: When we first developed the idea of making cocktails a part of what sherry should be about here in the U.S., there was definitely some resistance because they thought that somehow the integrity and the beauty of these amazing wines would be lost if they were added to cocktails. Over time, however, there has come to be a great appreciation for the cocktail’s ability to find new sherry enthusiasts. So many more people are exposed to the Vinos de Jerez in cocktails and they find an appreciation for sherry that can lead them to try it in other arenas and, of course, by itself. Couple that with bartenders who are very passionate about sherry recommending it to their guests and you have a huge pipeline of people trying sherry who may never have even thought about doing so. Today Jerez is very excited about the cocktail competition and cocktails are significant part of how Jerez is taught here in the US.
NCB Mix: What's your advice to aspiring entrants this year?
Seymour: The most important piece of advice I could give is to be passionate about the drink you create and serve. If it comes from a place that excites you, it will show in the recipe, the description and the way you pair the cocktail. The best entries are the ones that have a great drink with a story behind it that really says something about the person who created it. That passion could be about a sherry or a drink you love, but it could also be about a trip or a person that inspired you to think about the cocktail. And of course, I think for any competition you need to think about how you use the product. A great sherry cocktail does not need to be all sherry or even mostly sherry, but the drink itself should speak about the product or products from which it’s made.
NCB Mix: Finally, what's your favorite cocktail right now using sherry?
Seymour: It would be tough to pick just one, but I do love our version of the sherry cobbler:
Very Berry Cobbler
1 1/2 ounces medium dry sherry
1 1/2 ounces Palo Cortado Sherry
1/2 ounce fresh lemon juice
1/2 ounce agave nectar
Muddle berries with agave nectar. Add lemon and sherry, then shake vigorously. Strain over crushed ice into an old fashioned glass. Garnish with a strawberry and a blackberry and serve with a straw.
To enter the Vinos de Jerez competition, send the following information to firstname.lastname@example.org by Friday, Sept. 17:
• Precise recipe, including proper garnish and ideal glass
• Explanation of why your cocktail is great, when to serve and how, the exact preparation method and steps of assembly and the perfect food match and why
• A copy of the cocktail menu of the bar/restaurant where the cocktail is being served
• A photo of the drink, (digital jpeg is best)