There are worse things than judging a cocktail-making contest—say, waiting 30 minutes to get a drink last night at Bella Lounge before said contest began. I’ll excuse the mishap since the bartenders—not the ones competing, thank goodness—were only allowed to serve specialty cocktails and thus had to read recipes while slinging drinks for 300 or so invited guests. Talk. About. Slow. Service.
The contest, which counted 12 local bartenders as contenders, served as a semifinal round for the 10th annual International Finlandia Vodka Cup, to be held in Kittila, Finland, in February. “No one from the U.S. has ever won,” Finlandia rep David Page announced in an effort to pump up the judging panel, which included myself; my playboy.com colleague, senior editor Sam Jemielity; Josh Durr, director of research and development for the liquor consultancy Molecular Bartending; Chicago Tribune reporter Terry Armour; Chicago Scene publisher Ted Widen; and Chuck Cowdery, a member of the American Spirit Board.
I asked around how this year’s participants had been picked. Turns out not all of the contestants actually work behind the bar. “Finlandia wanted me to do this because we’re one of their key accounts,” Vince Liberto told me. Liberto owns two bars, Simpson’s, off Taylor Street, and Bobby McGee’s in Crest Hill, Illinois, and he helps with marketing for the Colosseum, a 75,000-square-foot entertainment venue in Mokena, Illinois. “I’m not really a bartender, but sometimes I make a drink called the Sex Panther, which is very popular,” he said. “People ask for it all the time.” Liberto was banking on the Panther—Finlandia Grapefruit Fusion, Dr. McGillicutty’s Cherry Schnapps, and a splash of Red Bull—but (spoiler alert) it wasn’t as popular in Chicago as it is in Crest Hill.
The participating bartenders were charged with creating three drinks: an aperitif, a long drink (basically, a cocktail you can drink with a meal or by itself), and an after-dinner drink, each of which had to include one of Finlandia’s flavored vodkas (cranberry, lime, mango, wild berries, or grapefruit). I served as a judge in round two: the long drink. We weren’t able to watch the bartenders at work or find out what, exactly, they put into each drink; we were asked to rate the drinks based on appearance, aroma, and taste. One of the long-drink submissions came with a cooked shrimp hanging off the stemless martini glass and rimmed with cayenne pepper; just one sip gave me heartburn. Another arrived with slices of cucumber; yet another, with stalks of thyme and ginger. Taste-wise, none of the drinks was an overwhelming winner in my book, but this was a competition based more on the craft of creative cocktailing than practical drinkability. I was, however, a fan of Finlandia’s Grapefruit Fusion, which servers handed out in mini plastic martini glasses throughout the night. What can I say? I like things simple.
Once the taste testing was complete and Finlandia reps had tallied the votes, B96’s Eddie Volkman, the evening’s emcee, announced the winner: Joshua Dobbs, of Blue Bird Lanes, for his Grapefruit Vodkarita, Papaya Martini, and Mango Dream. He’ll compete alongside bartenders from Denver, Tempe, Milwaukee, NYC, Detroit, Key West, Russia, Poland, England, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Germany in Finland. And if he wins? “The grand prize is bragging rights for beating more than 25 other bartenders from around the world,” David Page told me. “Plus, of course, the trip to Finland.” Here’s hoping they serve Grapefruit Fusion.
Photography: Courtesy of Sarah PrestonDining & Drinking