There is an unexpected epilogue to the story of the cocktail I invented called the Carmen Amaya. I created the drink on a lark to submit to the biennial Sherry Cocktail Competition. I sent in the application package: the recipe, a short essay to accompany it, and photos of the drink. I thought the judges would rate the drinks and maybe in a few months I’d get a handsome certificate of participation. But a few weeks ago I received a letter saying that my cocktail was in the finals and I was being flown to New York to present it in front of a panel of judges.
Cocktail competitions are a staple of the industry. And though I’ve judged dozens of them, this was my first behind the bar. The top prize would hinge not only on the quality of the cocktail, but also on our performance in front of the judges, for whom we had to explain how we created our drink and why.
Intensive training began immediately. As my Burgess Meredith, I was lucky to have Duggan McDonnell of Cantina, where I work. A remarkably savvy bartender, McDonnell is also a great competitor, having won the last three contests he entered.
Cue inspiring music: Picture me at 5 a.m., running through the city mist, my scalp steaming under my hoodie, my fists pumping. McDonnell rides his bike beside me, barking questions: “What are you going to wear? Better suit up. What kind of lemons are you going to have? Have you considered that you might be used to better fruit in California than you’ll find in New York? Where’s the basil going to come from? Do you know if the rye whiskey you use is available in New York? What kind of ice do they have?”
With McDonnell’s help on those (thankfully) metaphorical runs, I tweaked the recipe, substituting a more powerful and complex sherry. In turn that required a more complex rye. I found out what sort of ice they use at the Flatiron Lounge, where the competition would be held. Kold-Draft ice cubes are bigger and colder than what we use at Cantina, requiring a longer shake. McDonnell showed me how to tell whether the ice had melted enough by listening to how it rattled in the shaker. I made many Carmen Amayas over the course of the weeks and discovered that the quality of the lemons and the basil were the most fickle elements.
I arrived in New York with bottles of rye and sherry, as well as my shaker, my hand citrus squeezer, and a bag of fresh Meyer lemons from McDonnell’s grandmother’s tree in Santa Cruz, California. When I got to the Flatiron, Julie Reiner, one of the owners, showed me the basil she had. I realized it was not the right kind; it would make the drink too bitter. Luckily, there was time to pop down to the Whole Foods at Union Square and pick up some sweeter stuff.
Of the eight finalists, four were from New York—one from the Flatiron, two from PDT, and one from El Quinto Pino—and three were from Kansas City, Colorado Springs, and Las Vegas. One guy had foie gras–infused sherry. Another was using ground juniper berries. My ingredients began to seem pedestrian.
When my name was called, I took a shot of Rittenhouse 80-proof rye whiskey from the bottle I’d brought with me across the country and carried my ingredients and tools upstairs. It was about 3 p.m. and I hadn’t had any coffee that day (to avoid shaking), nor had I eaten (to keep me sharp). I faced the judges: Reiner; Steven Olson, whom I had last made cocktails for during my practical examination for the BAR course; David Wondrich, cocktail historian and author of Imbibe!; and Jacques Bezuidenhout, bartender, consultant, and reigning sherry cocktail champion. There were also lights, TV cameras, and a small audience.
I was nervous. I might have muddled the basil too much (I’d been finding that a few gentle taps on this winter basil were enough), and I forgot to put down napkins when I served the drinks. But when I tasted the cocktail through the straw and strained it out, it was good. Really good—I poured it with confidence. I gave my presentation, demonstrating my knowledge of sherry and the specific intention behind the drink. When it was over, I worried that I might have sounded glib. Best of all, my hands barely shook: I remembered the trick of holding the jigger right up against the mixing glass when you’re measuring to steady the hand. As I left, Olson remarked on how far I’d come in six months, since I quivered through my BAR exam. Over the next several hours, many people told me how delicious the Carmen Amaya was and that my performance was smooth and engaging.
That night at the awards party, in the midst of sherry bodegas pouring their wares and tapas from several New York restaurants, I was given fourth place. Three of the NYC pros finished in the money, while the rest of the country brought up the rear. I was satisfied, though. I’d beaten my own nerves. Also, my drink was really good.