Eleven of the area’s best bartenders swizzled their stuff for an all-star judges’ panel and the public at the Hudson Valley Bartender Challenge on Sunday, July 27. The charity cocktail competition, held at Rock and Rye Tavern in New Paltz, highlighted local restaurants, distilleries and farms, rewarding syntheses of seasonal ingredients and ingenuity with silver shaker trophies and barroom bragging rights.
Josh Rosenmeier of the Stockade Tavern in Kingston dominated the spirited competition, winning two silver shakers for judges’ favorite and crowd favorite.
“Thank you, everyone!” shouted a suspenders-clad Rosenmeier, hoisting a silver shaker into the air to toast the crowd. Hillrock Estate Distillery’s Solera Aged Bourbon was the basis for the Storm & Shadow, a similarly spiffily-attired drink, garnished with mint and plump powdered sugar dusted blackberries.
Rosenmeier’s performance demonstrated why the Stockade Tavern was named one of Esquire magazine’s Best Bars in America for 2014. “It feels wonderful to know that everything that I’ve learned in the last three-to-four years in developing my approach to bartending has paid off. It’s just really cool to know what I put into a cocktail shaker can please so many people and make them happy,” he said.
The Storm & Shadow let all of its ingredients sing, said judge Josey Packard. “It hit all the right notes, and I felt that the integration of the bourbon into the cocktail was spectacular. If I had occasion to order this cocktail, I would order a second one — and I don’t often order drinks twice,” said Packard, a founding bartender at famous Boston bar Drink.
Joining Packard in bestowing top honors were Lynette Marrero, cofounder of Speed Rack, an all-female speed bartending competition that raises money for breast cancer research, education and prevention; mixologist and teacher Kelley Slagle of specialty retailer Cocktail Kingdom; and the legendary F. Paul Pacult, “America’s foremost spirits authority.”
The judges awarded a third and final shaker for most creative cocktail to Jordan Thomas of The Shelter in Rhinebeck. His Rhinestone Cowboy incorporated Coppersea New York Raw Rye, ruby red grapefruit juice, buckwheat honey syrup, green Chartreuse, simple syrup and Amargo Chuncho bitters, garnished with a cucumber ribbon and pinch of coarse sea salt.
All proceeds from the event will benefit Food Bank of the Hudson Valley.
Contestants were randomly matched with spirits from sponsoring distilleries. Alex Avello from Market Street in Rhinebeck worked with Harvest Spirits’ Cornelius Applejack; Kat Dunn of Fish and Game in Hudson with Owney’s Original NYC Rum from the Noble Experiment; Ian Freemole from The Crimson Sparrow in Hudson with Greenhook American Dry Gin; Kyle Kelley of Mill House Brewing Company, Poughkeepsie with Tuthilltown Spirits’ Half Moon Orchard Gin; Kyle Miller from A Tavola in New Paltz with Catskill Distilling Co.’s Defiant Rye; and Sally Rich of Stissing House, Pine Plains with Hudson Valley Distillers’ Applejack. Representing Rock and Rye were Sean Graham with McKenzie Distiller’s Reserve Gin and Matthew Sweeney with Dutch’s Spirits Sugar Wash Moonshine. Amelia Craig of Rock and Rye Tavern served up a bonus mystery drink for curious quaffers.
Lauren Casey-Haiko, distillery and sales manager of Hillrock Estate, said she was thrilled to be paired with Rosenmeier, who toured the Ancram distillery in preparation for the competition. “Up-and-coming bartenders who are representing craft distilleries — we’re all about that. Josh absorbed our [philosophy] and represented Hillrock 100 percent,” she said — even incorporating Hillrock’s two canine mascots, Storm and Shadow, in the drink’s name. “This was a great way to get it out beyond distillery borders, and we’re happy to be here.”
The competition kicked off at 1 p.m. in Rock and Rye’s enclosed pavilion. Contestants helmed tables crowded with bottles, bunches of herbs, fruits, vegetables and tools. They personally garnished and served drams of their drinks, prepared in batch, and mixed fresh cocktails for the judges. Stacks of printed recipe cards ensured that tasters could recreate their favorites at home.
Tippling ticket holders circulated to the strains of live music by the Sweet Clementines band, holding clear plastic cups filled with colorful concoctions. After sampling the wares, they cast votes for crowd favorite by depositing numbered tickets in tip jars.
Cocktail connoisseurs Alana Cooper and Bill Parco of New Paltz were impressed by the offerings.
“I like something that matches time and season, with a full-bodied flavor, but not necessarily something that’s overpowering,” said Cooper, who was enjoying Ian Freemole’s watermelon-tinged Mr. Pink.
“Every one has been good. Matt Sweeney [of Rock and Rye] and [Josh Rosenmeier of] Stockade were very good, but I’ve got a few more to taste before I decide,” said Parco. “What I look for in a drink is, if you have a list of ingredients, I want to see them working together in an integrated way. I want them to complement each other.”
Sweeney’s cocktail was the runner-up for crowd favorite. Agent Orange combined moonshine, cantaloupe, Aperol, fresh lime juice, local honey syrup, Thai chili and mint leaves, with a salted rim. Sweeney said it was inspired by prosciutto-wrapped melon, and that the fruit came from next-door neighbor Huguenot Street Farm.
In preparation for the event, “I made probably over a hundred different versions,” said Sweeney.
Dedication to the craft was universally apparent, and the level of skill continues to rise said event organizer Cassie Fellet, owner of Rock and Rye Tavern, who developed the Hudson Valley Bartender Challenge to help foster the burgeoning local cocktail community.
“I’m really pleased. Passion definitely showed up in the final cocktails, which is why the judges took so long to deliberate. I think the cocktails that we tasted are as good as you’d find anywhere, I would definitely encourage everyone to try these cocktails fresh at the bars, which will be even better than the batch,” said Fellet, who gave additional kudos to the crowd. “Everyone surpassed my expectations in judging whom to give their votes to — they took it very seriously,” she said.
It bodes well for next year, when Rosenmeier will have the opportunity to defend the title — the Hudson Valley Bartender Challenge is slated to become an annual event.
Josh Rosenmeier’s Storm & Shadow
1.5 oz. Hillrock Estate Solera Aged Bourbon
1 oz. Barbadillo Oloroso Sherry
3/4 oz. blackberry syrup (equal parts blackberries and sugar)
1/2 oz. demerara sugar syrup (two parts demerara sugar: one part water)
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice
two dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
one dash Vieux Pontarlier Absinthe
eight mint leaves
Garnish with mint, blackberries and confectioners sugar.