Somewhere in the onslaught, the judges were watching. From behind their battle stations, competitors issued flurries of their very best cocktails for the never-ending crush of people who’d filled New Orleans’ Generations Hall to capacity.
This was Bar Room Brawl 2012, the annual bartenders’ faceoff at the Tales of the Cocktail festival pitting six of the nation’s best bars against each other in a sort of cage-smackdown party.
The gloves were off as six of America’s best bars squared off in New Orleans.
Boston’s Eastern Standard and LA’s Roger Room took the two top prizes last year, but now a new set of bars were vying for judges’ and people’s choice hardware — Houston’s Anvil, Kansas City’s Manifesto, New York City’s Employees Only, San Francisco’s Beretta, Seattle’s Rob Roy and The Passenger of Washington, D.C.
It was like taking a tour of America’s best bars, and as loud and messy as you might expect. The historic hall, a onetime sugar refinery dating back to the 1820s, had been transformed into one of the 10th annual festival’s most raucous events, and inside, bartenders muddled, shook, stirred and poured as fast as their bartender wizardry would allow.
DC’s The Passenger produced one of my favorite drinks of the night — Olson’s Revenge, featuring Grand Marnier, mezcal, honey and habanero bitters.
Each bar slung drinks featuring one of four sponsor spirits: Grand Marnier, Belvedere Vodka, 10 Cane Rum and Hennessey Cognac. Earlier, they’d made those same drinks for judges who now watched to see how well the six bar crews would hold up in the pressure-filled atmosphere.
A sampling of NYC’s Employees Only’s atmospheric decor.
There was Houston’s Anvil with its Antilles Julep – Grand Marnier, Jamaican rum, turbinado sugar, Angostura bitters and mint – and Kansas City’s Manifesto with a drink called Winter In The West Indies, a mix of 10 Cane rum, roasted butternut squash puree, honey-cinnamon syrup, lemon and Angostura aromatic bitters.
I had to restrain myself when I saw that New York City’s Employees Only – co-owned by Dallas’ Jason Kosmas, of Marquee Grill & Bar – was throwing down with its Ginger Smash, whose gingery aggressiveness I’d fallen in love with on a trip to New York last year. With Kosmas working the bar with his former homies, it remained my favorite drink of the night, followed by Passenger’s habanero-spiced Olson’s Revenge.
DC’s The Passenger employed napkins for a little trash-talking.
Bars had been urged to recreate some hint of their actual vibe, and Employees Only’s bar top was bookended by tatted babes in burlesque get-up, who lounged indifferently above the fray like New York City Public Library lions. Washington’s Passenger, meanwhile, handed out napkins wielding smack-talk: “Houston, You Have A Problem.” “New York City Smells Like Pee.” “Nice Mustache, San Francisco.” “Seattle: Oh Right, Like the 90’s.”
At left, Anu Apte of Seattle’s Rob Roy awaits announcement of the final results.
A band played onstage, and as Saturday turned into Sunday, the voracious throngs feasted on pretzels, wraps and maple-sausage breakfast sandwiches while tables overflowed with the debris of imbibement. By night’s end, Employees Only had been named the judges’ favorite, as if Dallas needed one more reminder that the city is lucky to have a guy like Kosmas around.
Dallas’ Kosmas, who worked the night alongside his former crewmates at Employees Only, the New York bar he co-owns, celebrates the victory.
The People’s Choice award went to Beretta of San Francisco, whose staff and fans rejoiced around the bar and beyond and – well, honestly, on a night like this, it was hard to tell where the celebrating ended and the partying began.
The bartenders of San Francisco’s Beretta celebrate their People’s Choice award.
Finally showing a little emotion after Employees Only takes the big prize.
— Marc Ramirez