Judging Cocktails: 9 Lessons Learned After Drinking 18 Mai Tais in a Row
Last night, 18 of Phoenix and Tucson's best bartenders took to the stage at Sandbar in Chandler to compete in the Mai Tai Competition. The two winning drinks were chosen, along with their bartenders, to go to Kona, Hawaii to represent Arizona in the national Don's Mai Tai Competition, named after iconic tiki bartender Don the Beachcomber. Since the winner of the national event gets $10,000 and the title of world's best Mai Tai, on top of already getting to go to Hawaii, stakes were high. That means judging all 18 of the drinks was no easy task and I definitely learned a thing or two about drinking cocktails.
Heather Hoch Holy Mai Tai, Batman! Where do you even start?
See also: How to Make the Perfect Mai Tai
Giggle all you want, but if you're blowing through 18 cocktails, it's probably best to get a spit cup. Sure, you're drinking Mai Tais (or whatever else) mixed up by some of the most adept bartenders in the state, but that doesn't mean you actually have to consume them. Give the drink a good swish to taste it and then spit it out.
One of the night's winners was almost knocked out of the running in my book because it just did not smell good. Michael Soo's cocktail was beautiful and among the best in terms of flavor. However, the egg white, which created a perfectly velvety smooth foam on top, also smelled, as fellow judge Jason Asher put it, "like a wet dog." Spritzing an aromatic liqueur over top of the foam is one way to beat the eggy smell associated with egg white cocktails. While aroma only counts for four points, it's the gateway sense to actually tasting the cocktail, especially with tiki drinks.
Presentation Can Put You Over the Top
Heather Hoch This one looked amazing, but after one sip, it was out of the running unfortunately.
See this cactus-contained cocktail? Beautiful, right? Well it marked high, too, because presentation is the second highest scoring area, after taste. Unfortunately, this one tasted kind of like dried peanut shells to me, which might be due to the cactus rind it sat in, but it's hard to say. Either way, this drink did rank well, but the flavor ended up killing its chances in the end. However, some of the other drinks had an overly simple scored or (unfortunately Butane) charred lime on top. For tropical drinks you can kind of go crazy, so simplicity was downright disappointing at this event.
Creativity Isn't Necessarily Key
With 38 total possible points, in this contest only seven were allotted to creativity. While having a unique and interesting drink will certainly put you over if you already have a delicious and decked out drink, it's not a good idea to sacrifice flavor to include a head-scratching ingredient.
Keep the Theme in Mind
Heather Hoch Stephanie Teslar's drink looked tiki, but it wasn't Mai Tai enough.
The two cocktails that had the best flavor, to me, for the night also basically couldn't win because they were a few too many steps away from being a Mai Tai to really qualify. Stephanie Teslar's drink screamed tiki from its classic mug to its crème of coconut and Pernod. Unfortunately, ingredient-wise it wasn't close enough to the competition beverage to really win out. That said, the winners of this competition will be going to a Don the Beachcomber Mai Tai Competition and most of the competitors came in with a Trader Vic's style drink. That made it easier for me to forgive other drinks' indiscretions, but the other judges weren't there with me.