Yesterday, I had the honor of being a judge at a cocktail competition sponsored by Infinium Spirits, the Aliso Viejo-based company that reps some of my favorite somewhat-mainstream brands: Corralejo Tequila, Zaya Rum, and the legendary Fernet-Branca amaro. Joining me were two Infinium reps and none other than Edoardo Branca, the sixth generation of the Branca family business (gratuitous plug: he says he's a fan of the Weekly and has us saved in his bookmarks—WHOA...)
We were at Pie Society in Costa Mesa for the final round of the OC Fernet-Branca All Stars, with a Murderer's Row of finalists: Mike West from Casa, Jarred Dooley from Playground, Emily Delicce from Vaca, and Daniel Zarate from the upcoming Salazar in LA's Frogtown neighborhood. The Chopped-style competition had contestants face off with Fernet-based cocktails, with each 10-minute round featuring a secret basket of ingredients and a 100-point scoring system that included simplicity (how easy it was to reproduce the cocktail), originality, name, personality, and more. And contestants had to do in in front of a rowdy crowd that included some of OC's best bartenders (Ricky Yarnell, who we dearly miss; Ortica's Joel Caruso; that guy from Little Sparrow with the awesome gages in his ears) egging on their pals when not asking for shots of Fernet during the competition—HA!
Emily and Jarred faced off first, with Emily (celebrating her birthday) eeking out the victory with a tangy watermelon shrub-based concoction. Both Mike and Daniel had it harder with their secret ingredient: avocado, with Daniel (who was repping an Ilegal Mezcal sticker) winning out with a chocolate fizz that saw him disappear for about five minutes while melting down the dark chocolate. For the final showdown, good friends Emily and Daniel were given the following secret ingredients: apple cider vinegar, grappa, and a smoke rosemary simple syrup—YIKES!
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Both Emily and Daniel were true champions who rose to the occasion: if their entries in the first round were merely good, their finalists were both spectacular, their respective ingredients sublimely balanced and the overall taste and presentation near-perfect. Emily's drink, the hilariously named I Can't Feel My Fucking Legs (chosen in honor of her reaction after tasting Fernet for the first time years ago) added pomegranate, gin, and lemon while fully embracing the funky acidity of the vinegar—it was a shrub on steroids. Daniel decided to go dark—in addition to the secret ingredients, he threw in Angostura and Peychaud's bitters along with absinthe for his version of a Sazerac that he named Frogtown Barrio Rifa—BOOM.
How close was it? Daniel won by a point, and each judge had the contestants winning by no more than two points. I personally had Emily winning by a point, because her vivacious personality beat Daniel's slow-but-steady approach. And I thought Emily was bolder in letting the apple cider vinegar shine instead of trying to hide it. However, Daniel's drink is more my type of booze—but I'd order I Can't Feel My Fucking Legs as a starter.
Anyhoo, congrats to all the contestants. Emily: May you feature your drink at Vaca. And everyone: go visit Salazar soon. On to the next competition!