Cocktails and Dreams

Terri Torzon wins with delish Dona

Photo by Tenaya HillsLast Sunday afternoon, surrounded by the dozen or so Sunset Beach locals who elected to sweat out the heat wave and sip beers inside J. King Neptune's, Seal Beach native and part-time bartender Terri Torzon held up a martini glass and smiled for the camera. Garnished with a partly peeled orange slice impaled by a cinnamon stick and filled to the brim with creamy, tan-colored, ice-cold goodness, Terri's cocktail could've easily passed for an oasis.

Moments after the snapshot, a man approached, draped an arm around Terri and declared, "She floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. When Terri makes a drink, you just can't see." Then, after a pause, he glanced at the martini glass and continued, "Is this . . . it?"

The it in question? "Doña," the prize-winning after-dinner drink Terri developed last March for the United States Bartenders Guild (USBG) State Bartending Championship, where she won an almost comically huge first-place trophy. Resting on a table in Neptune's, the trophy is joined by an array of awards, including another first-place trophy from last month's USBG National Championship in Las Vegas. There, Terri was not only the single female competitor, but she also became the first female national champion since the guild's inception in 1948.

"Anybody could do this," Terri tells me, but I don't buy it. Having grown up the daughter of a bartender—her father still tends at the Los Alamitos racetrack—she's spent 20 years bartending in Sunset Beach, part-timing at such watering holes as Neptune's and the Irish Mist. Sure, anybody can mix a drink—some of us like to experiment, even; Malibu and milk, anyone?—but not just anybody could come up with Doña.

See, the bartending championships are sort of like Iron Chef. Each year, competitors are given a drink type, ranging from before-dinner to after-dinner cocktails and also including "long drinks" (Collins-type concoctions), as well as a specific ingredient that must be present in the mixture. This year, it was Pitú, an 80-proof Brazilian cachaça liqueur that smells like bad tequila and tastes, well, not good. "There's no way you can get a hangover on this stuff," Terri notes, "it's that pure."

Right. You'll just die.

But whereas Terri's competitors in the state and national championships entered very strong drinks—she blames it on their being male—Doña, which comprises Pitú, caramel liqueur, pumpkin-spice syrup, and half and half, is supersmooth and very sweet. It tastes exactly like pumpkin pie.

Doña wasn't the only reason Terri stood apart, however. In addition to taste, there is another factor in the judges' decision: technique. Competitors must pour up to seven equal-sized glasses of their drink in less than seven minutes without spilling a drop—or leaving anything remaining in the shaker. Worse yet, the entire process—from shaking to garnishing (using tongs, not fingers) to pouring—is typically done in complete silence.

But Terri, like most bartenders, wasn't accustomed to serving in such a nerve-racking environment, so when it was her turn to compete, she asked that there be music in the background. Then she went further. "I was 100 points ahead going into the final round," she explains, "so I knew I was going to at least get third place. I thought, 'What do I have to lose?'"

After displaying the drink ingredients, which the competitors are required to do in a grandiose, magician-like, this-top-hat-is-empty fashion before pouring, Terri kissed the bottles. When it was time to shake and pour, she shook her bottom as well. It worked. After winning the competition, Terri stepped outside to phone home. Next to her stood one of the defeated, also on his cell phone. "I'm a loser! A big fucking loser," she heard him yell, "to a woman!"

Up next for Terri is a return to Vegas in November for the international competition—the Bartending Olympics—where she'll compete with Doña against bartenders from more than 50 countries. And this time, she won't be the only female. "The Norwegian champion is a chick with pink hair, I hear," she says, sounding a bit scared—but only a bit.

Terri drops by J. King Neptune's every once in a while, 17115 Pacific Coast Hwy., Sunset Beach, (562) 592-4878; Or catch her in November at the Bartending Olympics. For ticket prices and event information, go to www.iba.au.com.
 
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