The basic brawl

When it comes to libations in Louisville’s bar scene, it seems as though ’80s speed bartending has become a distant memory, and the shift toward improved intoxicants and “craft” cocktails has taken hold. Meander into any pitch-hitting establishment and chances are, you’ll be perusing a drink list that’s a mashup of trendy innovation and pre-prohibition era classics — and don’t forget the tattooed, suspender-clad barkeep and a 10-minute, mouth-watering wait. There’s no doubt that these bartenders and mixologists are artists, blazing a trail of boozy creativity throughout Derby City, yet, when did social lubricants and pretension become lovers? Lauren VanCleave and Jared Schubert of Lip Service Beverage Solutions asked the same question and set out on a commendable quest to prove that quality drink mixing can quench the thirst of the masses by creating The Basic Brawl: Louisville’s Anti-Mixology Competition. I was lucky enough to be invited to judge, because, you know, drinks.
VanCleave founded Lip Service Beverage Solutions in 2012 as a resource center for brands, bars and clients to go “beyond the cocktail” and create a true imbibe experience. She believes in bringing a unique drink experience to client weddings and special events, including brand development, which is where the featured spirit of The Basic Brawl comes into play. NuLu’s Rabbit Hole Distilling is churning out Kentucky Moonshine with flavors paying homage to its hometown — Bourbon Ball, Cardinal Cin, Derby Rose and more. These folks are onto something, creating a more drinkable spirit than that of Appalachian alchemists — one that can become the star of a delectable cocktail.
The Basic Brawl brought together and put Kentucky Moonshine into the hands of the true “gatekeepers of the industry,” says VanCleave, who invited local bartenders who may have typically steered clear of the stuffy pretension of a normal cocktail competition. VanCleave brought her creative director, logistics guru and “Patron Saint of Southern Hospitality,” Jared Schubert, to Lip Service earlier this year. Schubert, who brought craft cocktails to Kentucky originally at 732 Social laughingly says, “I have some making up to do,” humbly admitting that his iconic expertise sent a shockwave through the Louisville bar industry, establishing a true craft cocktail scene. “Why can’t we drop the word ‘craft’?” he asks. “Let’s just call it a cocktail,” which seems to be the first step in making great intoxicants more accessible to the average Joe.
The Basic Brawl took place at Matthew Landan’s Haymarket Whiskey Bar. Lip Service sent an Uber to pick up its judges (um, can every cocktail competition do this?), which scooped my friend Erin and me promptly. We arrived at Haymarket and were greeted by the other judges, Kyle Leuken and Erin Keane. Schubert began to excitedly give us the run-down on how the quaffing competition would go. His enthusiasm and hilarious animation accompanied us throughout the entirety of the explanation of the judging process. In Haymarket’s back room, eight tables were set in a U shape, each decorated based on the cocktail theme, with a DJ spinning records in the back. Our highly esteemed panel navigated the room, judging libations based on taste/drinkability, performance/costuming, creativity and more. Ingredients had to be accessible (i.e., no homemade simple syrups, et cetera) and adopt only basic cocktail methodology. Competitors embraced the concept in many ways, ranging from creating a fantastic, “basic” cocktail such as the Outlook Inn’s “My Old Kentucky Bloody” with Kentucky Moonshine’s White Pepper, to grabbing onto the mockery trend of the “basic bitch” concept, like Felicia Corbett from Varanese. Corbett hilariously created the “#fallinyrmouth” — her take on the pumpkin spiced latte, complete with a whipped topping in a Heine Brother’s coffee cup.
While it may be true that by the seventh or eighth competitor, the judges and I were swaying and couldn’t read our own handwriting, we felt buzzed and confident about our decision regarding the winning cocktail. Beth Burrows from Down One Bourbon Bar nailed the concept from start to finish with her “Post-It Breakup,” a moonshine cosmopolitan derived from the “Sex and the City” episode in which main character, Carrie, is dumped via Post-It. And, truly, what’s more basic than “Sex and the City”? Burrows began mixing our samplings and invited us to write down on Post-It’s our most outlandish reasons for being dumped, and then light them on fire. With Rabbit Hole White Pepper Moonshine, Citron vodka, O3 Orange Liqueur, St. Germaine, fresh cranberries (soaked in moonshine), boxed cranberry juice, lime juice and simple syrup, served up in a martini glass, of course, Burrows married subtle spice and artisanal sweetness using ingredients we can all obtain. The Post-It Breakup embodied the emphasis on quality and approachability that birthed the concept of The Basic Brawl, and when Schubert presented Burrows with her championship belt, she approached the stage draped in a sweater and Ugg boots, and was anything but basic.