The Louisville Cocktail Competition has been a staple in the beverage community since RYE’s former beverage director, Doug Petry, created it eight years ago. Every October, spirits nerds and thirsty locals alike gather in NuLu for a who’s who of Louisville talent and delectable creations featuring a bourbon brand and some particular parameters. This year was no disappointment as bartenders from 10 local bars and restaurants set out to feature Angel’s Envy in their own riff on either an Old Fashioned, Mint Julep or Seelbach cocktail. I was honored to be a guest of Angel’s Envy Whiskey Guardians and local beverage sweetheart, Felicia Corbett, and while my picks turned out to be a bit different than the esteemed judges, in true Louisville fashion, bourbon always wins.
This year’s competitors hailed from Derby City’s favorite craft cocktail bars and watering holes, featuring Adam Sabin (Odeon), Davy Butterworth (Decca), Jared Sims (Biscuit Belly), Calvin Philley (High Horse Bar), Jessica Pfau (RYE), Breanna Price (Hearth on Mellwood Eatery), Lucas Worley (Chik’n & Mi), Brian Heese (Lola at Butchertown Grocery), Daniel Mason (Alex&nder) and Dante Wheat (Brix Wine Bar & Bistro).
“They have to make one of three classic cocktails that have a home in Louisville,” said Kelsey Hofmann, beverage director at RYE and organizer of the event. “I like to see people that have played really creatively, the cocktails they’ve been given have confined restraints, so if they can come up with something that elevates that cocktail … ”
Hofmann said she doesn’t like to play favorites, but that’s what impresses her. She’s won and participated in her fair share of cocktail competitions and is well known for curating an innovating and interesting menu at RYE (with her newest out today), so while she’s not a judge, her opinion resonates with competitors.
Judges were highly regarded members of the beverage community, as well, and throughout the evening, one could see the anxious competitors carefully guiding their finished products into the RYE bar. Susie Hoyt of The Silver Dollar and The Pearl of Germantown, Wes Henderson of Angel’s Envy and Dave Tuney (last year’s winner) all saddled up as judges tasting the plethora of creations and using the following criteria to crown their winners: flavor/balance, creativity, presentation, use of Angel’s Envy and seasonality — “weighted in that order,” said Hofmann. Several of the bartenders went further by creating artful table décor and telling stories to go along with their elixirs, adding to their nuance and originality.
Everyone brought something different to the table, which is truly impressive given the parameters they were required to abide by.
My favorites began with Adam Sabin’s, of Odeon, who used Angel’s Envy, chocolate mole and cinnamon bitters, Cappelletti (a wine-based aperitivo), G. H. Mumm Champagne and a rubbed sage and bourbon smoked citrus pepper half-rim. The bitters’ spice and effervescence from the bubbles were a welcomed change of pace after sampling a few too many simple syrup variations.
Next, I adored Calvin Philley’s of the soon-to-open High Horse Bar, who used his own olive oil-washed Angel’s Envy, Cardamaro, bay leaf and almond syrup, angostura, a Mexican angostura amaro and cherry bitters with a bay leaf and lemon garnish. His libation was inspired by Portugal, he had a beautiful story to go along with it, and you could taste it.
Jared Sims from Biscuit Belly also created an intriguing glass, with Angel’s Envy, a smoked maple shiitake mushroom syrup and angostura bitters. I was a big fan of the earthiness, a slight shroomy, umami flavor coming through in this Old Fashioned riff. It was both creative and seasonally appropriate.
Lucas Worley from Chik’n & Mi gets my honorable mention with his glass of straight-up fall goodness in the Truly Madly Deeply: Angel’s Envy, Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot Liqueur, Copper & Kings Floodwall Apple Brandy, demerara gum syrup, orange juice and bitters with a spiced, dehydrated orange.
In the end, the judges didn’t ask my opinion, and they went (mostly) another route with their choices. Breanna Price from Hearth on Mellwood Eatery took the people’s choice award. Third place went to Calvin Philley, second to Jessica Pfau of RYE and First to Davey Butterworth of Decca, who created a smoked libation of Angel’s Envy, lemon juice, apple honey syrup, angostura bitters and sparkling French wine infused with applewood smoke.
Don’t fret if you missed it because Butterworth said he’ll be running his victorious creation as a drink special all weekend at Decca. Stop by and put your palate to the test and let us know if you taste a winner.