Behind the Bar Stick People

Follow the Road to the Bartender of the Year Finals

Reaching the regional finals in the Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year competition is a major opportunity. And not just because the bartenders get to work with Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon, PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, Rittenhouse Rye Whiskey and Domaine de Canton.

The semifinalists also got to hear from two of the biggest names in the industry, Don Lee and Dave Arnold. No other competition offers that kind of access, which helps explain why it’s so competitive.

A spot in the Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year finals isn’t easy to come by. And it shouldn’t be, considering one of the most prestigious titles in the industry—and $15,000—are on the line.

The eight bartenders who will soon face off in the finals had to outperform five of their bartending peers during the regional events—all while trying to impress some of the biggest names in the bar world.

Since Heaven Hill is a family-owned business, all the competitors had to create a family-inspired recipe. Creating an innovative or delicious cocktail wasn’t enough to earn a spot in the finals. The finalists were the ones who shared an engaging, unforgettable story about the origins of the recipe.

Oh, and that was only the first challenge.

How else did the finalists stand out from the other top-tier bartenders in their city? Check out what happened at each regional competition.

  • San Francisco

    Who Won: Jorge Vargas-Baquedano

    His Cocktail: New Adventure

    Where it Happened: Pacific Cocktail Haven

    Jorge Vargas-Baquedano, the lead bartender at Jack Rose Libation House in Los Gatos, California, stood out from the start, when the competitors were tasked with creating a family-inspired recipe. His cocktail, the New Adventure, came with a backstory as rich and memorable as the drink’s flavor profile.

    “The New Adventure represents the warm and special time when my wife, the dogs and I play with baby Amelia before she goes to bed,” he explained. “It’s the special bond we want to create for her: the meaning of family.”

    His impressive showing continued in the second round, where the bartenders collaborated one-on-one with judges Lynn House (National Brand Educator for Heaven Hill), Jeffrey Morgenthaler (Clyde Common and Pépé Le Moko) and Pacific Cocktail Haven’s own Brian Means. Vargas-Baquedano used their feedback and direction to create a delicious cocktail tailor-made for Pacific Cocktail Haven.

    The other major highlight for the San Francisco regional was an intimate dinner at the Proper Hotel, with a talk from Adam Rogers, the author of Proof: The Science of Booze. Rogers discussed taste, the perception of taste and how the theater of bartending influences how customers experience cocktails.

    Following cocktails, dinner and the talk, Jorge Vargas-Baquedano was announced as the winner, edging out second place finisher Watson Barry. San Francisco was the first regional competition—and it proved to be one of the most competitive.

  • Austin

    Who Won: Madelyn Kay

    Her Cocktail: Lift Me Up

    Where it Happened: Whisler’s

    Top Texas bartenders gathered at Whisler’s in Austin, with the city’s own Madelyn Kay getting off to a big lead with her first cocktail, the Lift Me Up. Kay, the beverage director at Vox Table, created an elegant blend of bourbon and coffee with a sweet backstory.

    “Coffee always puts a little lift in my step, as does my family. So making a lift-style cocktail just seemed right,” Kay explained.

    It wasn’t only the balanced flavors that impressed judges Lynn House, Joaquín Simó (partner at Alchemy Consulting and owner/bartender of Pouring Ribbons) and Chris Bostick (owner of Half Step). Kay stood out from the beginning because of her poised, confident performance when she collaborated with the judges during the second challenge.

    While only Kay and runner up Cesar Perez II received a cash prize, every bartender enjoyed dinner and drinks at Juniper, along with a talk from Don Lee. The former beverage director at PDT captivated the bartenders by discussing sugar, acid and why the relationship between the two are so important to great cocktails.

  • San Diego

    Who Won: Julien Calella

    His Cocktail: Golden Dowry

    Where it Happened: Polite Provisions

    Julien Calella, a bartender at Tasting Room in Venice, California, emerged as the winner by demonstrating all the skills and tools of a seasoned hospitality professional.

    His family-inspired recipe went beyond delighting judges Lynn House, Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Erick Castro (owner of Polite Provisions and Boilermaker). The balanced, rejuvenating cocktail he created in the first challenge told a story to those industry leaders about Calella’s roots.

    Calella, whose mother was a doctor of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine, explained the recipe’s significance. “It was inspired by a tea that my mother would always make when I had a cold. The unconditional love and care my mother has provided throughout my life, represented by the Ayurvedic teas and formulas she so carefully prepared for us, cemented what family means to me.”

    Los Angeles’ Adam George Fournier made it a close race, thanks to his performance in the collaborative second challenge. It wasn’t enough to pass Calella, but the way Fournier interacted with the judges really left an impact. And it was enough to earn him $500.

    The Southern California bartenders were also treated to a talk from Don Lee. While enjoying dinner at Juniper & Ivy, he led a discussion on the importance of balancing acids and sugars when making a cocktail with integrity.

  • Portland

    Who Won: Adam Robinson

    His Cocktail: Visa Run

    Where it Happened: Pépé Le Moko

    Jeffrey Morgenthaler wasn’t just one of the judges for the Portland regional. The event took place at his bar, Pépé Le Moko, where top bartenders from all over the Pacific Northwest arrived for an evening of friendly competition.

    Morgenthaler and the other two judges, Alejandro De La Parra (Teardrop Lounge) and Lynn House, were swayed by Adam Robinson’s unconventional approach to the family-inspired cocktail. The Portland bartender drew inspiration from his adopted bartending family at Deadshot. During the challenge, he illustrated exactly how each ingredient supported the story behind his cocktail.

    The other competitors didn’t make it easy for Robinson to advance. Estanislado Orona gave a polished and engaging performance during both challenges, creating recipes that showed what PAMA liqueur can bring to a cocktail.

    But ultimately Robinson sealed his victory in the second challenge. The way he collaborated with the judges, improvising a cocktail perfectly suited for Pépé Le Moko, wasn’t going to be beat.

    The competition was followed by an intimate dinner, where Don Lee gave an informative and practical talk about the value of balance within a great cocktail. The subject couldn’t have been better, since Adam Robinson was one of the few competitors who struck the right balance between sugar and acid in his family-inspired cocktail. As a result, he will soon be competing for $15,000.

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  • Denver

    Who Won: Austin Carson

    His Cocktail: Dahlia

    Where it Happened: The Way Back

    The Denver regional was a true showcase of top talent in the area. Local bartenders brought their A-game, each giving finely tuned performances and pouring memorable cocktails.

    The event was held at The Way Back, which provided an intimate but casual vibe for the evening. Chad Michael George, the owner of the chic bar, even served as the guest judge alongside Jeffrey Morgenthaler and Lynn House.

    With so many bartenders performing at their best, the judges really had to examine who did every little thing just right. And that’s how Austin Carson really caught the judges’ eyes. He made balanced cocktails, worked efficiently and showed real thought to the story behind his recipe. Everything you want from a seasoned professional, Carson showed throughout the course of the evening.

    Before Carson was announced as the winner, the regional finalists enjoyed dinner at Acorn and a lively talk from Dave Arnold. The author didn’t follow a script, but he covered many of the elements of making smart, balanced cocktails. It was a treat for the bartenders, who each relished in a private moment with the cocktail luminary.

    Austin Carson may be the only one moving on the Georgia finals, but each bartender came away from the regional a better bartender than they were when they arrived.

  • Charleston

    Who Won: Arthur Boothe

    His Cocktail: Down South Cooler

    Where it Happened: Proof

    Charleston was home to the smallest, most intimate of the regional events. But the four competing bartenders had more than enough skill and showmanship.

    Even with all the talent assembled at Proof, an elegant cocktail bar in Charleston, Arthur Boothe’s personality and talent shined through. The creativity that went into his family-inspired cocktail, the Down South Cooler, coupled with his genuine performance, earned him a trip to the finals.

    Corey Phillips did his best to make it a difficult decision. The runner up brought serious poise and originality to both challenges, even using corn milk as the secret ingredient in his family-inspired cocktail.

    But the judges, including Joaquín Simó and local judge Craig Nelson (proprietor of Proof), had to give the nod to Boothe because of how gifted a collaborator and improviser he proved to be in the second challenge.

    The dinner was as lively as the competition. That was in large part due to Dave Arnold, who was every bit as engaging and informative as when he spoke with the Denver finalists. It was a unique opportunity to get some quality time with someone who knows cocktails better than almost anyone.

    Arthur Boothe will need to draw on those insights if he wants to win the national finals in Sea Island, Georgia.

  • Chicago

    Who Won: Mony Bunni

    Her Cocktail: Sky is Falling

    Where it Happened: Sportsman’s Club

    Mony Bunni was the first bartender to perform at Sportsman’s Club. Judges Joaquín Simó, Caitlin Laman (the beverage director for the Ace Hotel) and Lynn House were delighted by her family-inspired cocktail and charmed by her humble performance.

    Bunni delivered everything the judges were looking for: balanced flavor, sharp technique and a personal story to tie it all together.

    The intimate setting allowed the judges to have an up-close look at each of the competitors, and they were surprised by how evenly matched the bartenders were. The group definitely did the Midwest proud.

    The fantastic cocktails weren’t the only reason it was an unforgettable evening. The bartenders and judges were treated to dinner at Parachute—one of Chicago’s trendiest restaurants—and spent quality time with Dave Arnold, author and all-around cocktail genius who again proved as captivating in person as he is on the page.

    He spoke at length about how certain scientific principles come into play when building a recipe. The concepts will benefit the competitors as they move forward, whether they’re returning to their home bar or competing for $15,000 in the finals.

  • New York

    Who Won: Harrison Ginsberg

    His Cocktail: Double Feature

    Where it Happened: Shanty

    Shanty hosted the final regional event. It was a fitting send-off for this stage of the competition. The private setting let the bartenders and judges cut loose and enjoy themselves, both during the competition and at the dinner afterward.

    However, everyone was serious about the cocktails. And none were more tasty or innovative than Harrison Ginsberg’s. His quirky personality was on full display as he talked about his grandfather and his involvement in the history of Town and Country Theatres. That was the inspiration for his delicious—and aptly titled—Double Feature cocktail.

    Ginsberg emerged the winner, but was far from the only one making show-stopping drinks. Leanne Farve and Benjamin Hash really stood out with their energetic performances and bold creativity.

    Last year’s winner, Nathan O’Neil, also returned, but this time it was to judge the competition. He was joined at the judge’s table by Allen Katz (owner of Shanty) and Joaquín Simó, all of whom agreed that Ginsberg was the right choice to represent New York in the finals.

    Many amazing cocktails have been created in the Heaven Hill Bartender of the Year competition. No doubt that will continue as the eight finalists travel to Sea Island, Georgia, to compete for the $15,000 grand prize. Keep an eye out for who becomes the 2018 Bartender of the Year.