- June 26, 2013
The innovation is taking place in darkened rooms when the doors are closed to customers, and the competitors are sworn to secrecy about the experiments they’re conducting.
Is this a closely held science symposium privy only to those with top secret clearance?
No, it’s the run-up to Set the Bar, Sarasota’s annual mixology competition that brings service professionals from 25 different establishments to compete for customers and accolades.
They’re all working on the same project, one of embellishment more than reinvention.
You know what you like, and you’ve probably ordered it many times before. A mixologist’s job is to give you what you ordered but to render it in a way you’ve never tasted it before.
“The challenge is to take a classic cocktail and put a fun spin on it,” says Stephanie Porter, beverage manager at Grove. “What we do is we try to think of what other flavors would go well in this cocktail. And then we'll play off the flavors that are already existing in it.”
Porter’s team at Grove took home the top prize with its Groveloma in 2021, a spin on the popular Paloma tequila cocktail. This year, Porter and her team will be back to compete in the gin category, which she regards as a challenge to work with an underrated spirit.
Max Wheeler, bar manager at JPAN Sushi & Grill at University Town Center, will be competing in Set the Bar for the first time, and he’ll be working in the rum category.
Wheeler, like Porter, is on guard not to spill any secrets, but he said the key to making a drink is balance.
You don’t want any one flavor to overpower the spirit upon which the drink is based, and Wheeler goes as far to say that a drink should never have more than four ingredients.
“There’s no sense in me drinking a cocktail if I don’t appreciate the spirit underneath,” he says. “If you have more than four ingredients, you’re drowning that spirit. And that spirit is the entire pillar of the cocktail.
"Adding a fifth ingredient — doing two contrasting flavors underneath an aged tequila — needs a justification because I’m going to lose parts of that tequila.”
One hundred years ago, in fact, that may have been the bartender’s intention when they poured you a cocktail.
Turner Moore, a judge for the whiskey category of Set the Bar, says that early bartenders may have used garnishes to distract from the taste of their drinks.
“The general consensus is that unethical bartenders maybe were using fruit juices or other things to mask unwanted flavors and low-quality alcohol,” says Moore. “But now, of course, it's developed into a tremendous art form. The creativity and innovation is remarkable.”
Ed Smith Stadium, generally a baseball field and most recently a sandbag distribution center in the lead-up to Hurricane Ian, will give the 25 teams plenty of space to sell their wares.
The rules for the competitors are pretty simple.
They get a bottle to experiment with and a couple bottles to complete their mixed drinks for Set the Bar.
They all use the same base spirits — Big Storm Distillery for gin, Cuervo Tradicional for tequila, Cathead Distillery for vodka, Dark Door Spirits for whiskey and Papa’s Pilar Rum for rum — but after that they’re allowed to let their imaginations run wild.
“We’re physically mixing and tasting things,” says Porter of the invention process.
“We’re saying, ‘OK, what do you think this cocktail needs?’ We’re playing around with those elements and seeing which flavors go well together and which flavors don’t go well together.”
Wheeler said he hoped to compete in last year’s Set the Bar event, but his wife went into labor on the very day of the competition. This year, he’s keeping it close to the vest; he’s excited to compete against his fellow industry professionals but he doesn’t want to get invested in the stakes of winning and losing.
“I haven’t told my parents. My wife knows about it, but she only knows because I’ll be home early,” he says. “I'm bringing what I think people will like without the intention of winning. … If I could have 500 people say, ‘Wow, I’ve never tasted anything like this,’ I’d rather have that than a trophy.”
Marc Grimaud, board president of Sarasota-Manatee Originals and owner of Cafe Gabbiano, says the individual judges taste each drink blind and score them one by one.
The people’s choice for the best drink of the competition is decided by voucher; each patron rips off a piece of their voucher and leaves it at the table for the drink they liked the most.
And at the end of the day, all the vouchers are counted up and tabulated.
“It’s a great setup,” says Gabbiano. “There's a lot of culinary talent in this town. There's also a lot of skilled bartenders in this town. So it's good to have an event to feature and highlight them.”
Wheeler jokes that there isn’t a lot of showmanship involved in the actual service of the drinks; there won’t be any Cocktail-style server heroics. It’s more like a heads-down assembly line cranking out drink after drink. For this day, one day only, there are no requests.
“It’s kind of like being a Costco employee doing hot dog samples,” says Wheeler. “I’m bringing our best offering to them. Once they take it, it’s no longer my responsibility. They can appreciate it, they can hate it, they can love it. They can even ask for the recipe.”