The bar at Carnivale
The bar at Carnivale

Since I began writing The Chaser a year ago, I’ve become a regular on the cocktail-contest-judging circuit. It seems I’m now a booze expert (I know, Mom: It’s really not the best thing for maintaining youthful-looking skin or long-term health).

A Carnivale mojito
A classic Carnivale mojito

Prior to last night, my most recent turn was for a gin-and-tonic showdown sponsored by Tanqueray at the Hard Rock Hotel in early August. I tasted something like 18 cocktails made by hard-core, professional Chicago bartenders over the course of a couple of hours. It was grueling—truly.

So I was relieved to learn that Tuesday’s mojito contest at Carnivale would be a fun, low-key affair where a panel of “local celebrities” (thank you, thank you) would pick a winner from a manageable pool of five amateur cocktail mixers who had applied via the spot’s website. Carnivale—which celebrates its five-year anniversary tonight from 6:30 to 11 p.m. with a circus-themed party open to the public—had already narrowed down the field from 100 entries. (Carnivale, my liver thanks you.)

Seated at a round table, my fellow judges and I watched the mojito hopefuls muddle and shake while their friends cheered them on. The competitors were all surprisingly at ease in front of the crowd, and the cocktails were, for the most part, pretty tasty—though I’m not sure I’d take home the idea of mixing amaretto and pomegranate.

In the end, contestant Michi won our hearts with her logic for including prickly-pear juice: “Dr. Oz says prickly pear is a good hangover cure, so I thought, Why not use it before the hangover?” When we tallied our scores, Michi had tied with the bubbly, heavy-pouring Jane but came out ahead after a tiebreaker vote. Her winning cocktail will be available for $9.25 through the end of October.

Or if you’d like to learn to pour your own prizewinner, Carnivale’s master mixologist, Daryl Freeman, will lead Mojitos 101 on October 13th as part of Carnivale University’s fall semester. For $25 (call 312-850-5005 for reservations), participants will make classic and raspberry mojitos, sample drink and appetizer pairings, soak up a little history about the popular Cuban cocktail, and hear live music by Willie Gomez con Cache.

One tip? Hold the amaretto.