Last month, Jason Schiffer of the fabulous 320 Main in Seal Beach invited me to be a judge at a cocktail competition held at the Varnish, the fabulous pseudo-speakeasy at the back of the venerable Cole's in downtown LA. The purpose of the competition was to get LA bartenders ready for the cocktail competition season run by the United States Bartenders' Guild (USBG), the governing body for serious bartenders in this country.
There were apparently a lot of LA cocktail royalty for this competition, although I knew none of them because the only thing I eat in LA is Thai food in Thai Town and Indonesian cuisine near Westwood–oh, and Guelaguetza. The sole Orange County participant in the event? Dave Castillo, Schiffer's bar manager.
Could an OC boy take on the bigwigs of LA? Damn straight.
The competition was broken down into three rounds, each with a different them, all based on tequila. The first round had to be a take on a margarita; the second round, something else. And the third round introduced a wild card–they had to make a cocktail based on Pacifico beer.
The other two judges (Bricia Lopez of Guelaguetza and another gal) and I were placed in a separate room, the better to ensure it was a blind taste. We got to judge the cocktails on taste, appearance, and other factors, but Schiffer judged them on technique, and he proved a brutal taskmaster. As he told us, some of our favorite cocktails lost because of shoddy technique; some lesser cocktails moved on to the next round, saved by attention to detail. Schiffer was ruthless on purpose; as he told us, USBG competitions take both technique and taste into account, and the local chapter wants their guys and gals immaculate once the regional competitions start.
Castillo killed it. The first round mock margarita was great, with a mini-calavera fashioned from a kumquat; the second one was even better–if I remember correctly, it had a touch of mezcal and a marigold floating in it.
His final drink was great as well, but I had to stay true: his competitor's was better. Nevertheless, congrats to Castillo for representing OC well (check out this 320 Main profile of him here) and for further burnishing 320 Main's reputation as the greatest bar in OC of them all!