San Francisco Bartender Competition

The first Monday of every month Jon Gasparini and Greg Lindgren of Rye bar in San Francisco host a competition for bartenders.

An ingredient is chosen, usually working with a spirits company, and the bartenders create original cocktails featuring that ingredient. The winning cocktail goes on the menu at Rye.

This month I was lucky enough to be tapped as one of the judges.

As a cocktail enthusiast and San Franciscan, I can’t really think of many better ways to spend an evening out at a bar, than having drinks made for me by some of San Francisco’s top bartenders.

The ingredient this month was a challenging one, Campari. This bitter aperitif is most well known for its part in the classic drink, The Negroni. But, its bitterness makes it something of a challenge to feature in a cocktail. Too much Campari and your drink might be too sweet or too bitter. Too little, and it gets lost.

My fellow judges and I were given instructions on the criteria for judging cocktails, from “aroma” to “utility”, and sat down at a table to await our drinks.

I was quite happy to be joined in judging cocktails by two experienced Bay Area bar professionals, David Nepove and Dominic Venegas. (It almost as fascinating and informative just to listen to these two geek out about the spirits and bar industries as to judge the cocktails!)

The cocktails ran the gamut, from an upscale take on the Negroni featuring Anchor Junipero Gin and Cocchi Barolo Chinato to an absolutely amazing new original cocktail with strawberry juice, Plymouth Gin, and a passion fruit foam.

I was completely awed by the amount of work and creativity that went into each of the 9 cocktails we were presented with.

Unfortunately, we did have to decide on 3 winners, and they were:

1) Joel Baker, Bourbon and Branch, for his creation, Notte della Stella

This was the aforementioned creation with strawberry, gin, Campari and a passion fruit foam. I was blown away by this one, from the lovely aromatic smell of the passion fruit foam to the perfect balance of sweetness and bitterness in the liquid proper. He even punched out little star shaped pieces of citrus peel to float on top of the cocktail as a garnish.

2) Yanni Kehagiaras, Bourbon and Branch, for his creation Milanese Breeze

This was an incredibly refreshing combination of watermelon juice, campari, and gin with a lovely curl of thinly sliced cucumber impaled on a silver cocktail pick for a garnish. I really want a pitcher of this for my next party.

3) Carlos Yturria, Rye, for his creation, Spiagia Nera

Carlos created a drink with Campari, organic plum syrup, citrus, and a “snowball”. This was a sort of a Campari sno-cone. Light refreshing and enjoyable.

For me, the whole experience underscored how fortunate we are here in the San Francisco Bay Area, to have available to us such an incredible selection of ingredients, and passionate food and bar professionals who are willing to go to incredible lengths to utilize those ingredients in amazing and unexpected ways.

I can’t wait to get back to Rye some time soon to see how they manage to pull off Joel’s “Notte della Stella”!