Words by Carmen Macri
Spirits were high during the third quarter of the Bar Brawl at The Volstead downtown.
The bracket-style competition calls for the best bartenders in the city to show the people what they’re made of, only it comes with a twist. The bartenders are given a spirit and a list of secret ingredients… though, they aren’t allowed to choose freely. There is a Plinko-type board with unique ingredients at the bottom and the fate of the bartenders’ drinks being left to gravity. The broad spectrum of components ranges from fresh pineapple to carrot turmeric puree.
Two bartenders take the stage with only five minutes to make a drink that will “wow” the judges, one of whom being <Folio> columnist Shelton Hull. After the contenders set their stations, they hurry to the Plinko board to decide their fate. The previous contestant struck gold this round with Aquafaba (the water left over from cooked chickpeas, FYI) and watermelon puree, but other bartenders weren’t so lucky this time.
Alex Arniaz, a mixologist at TPC Sawgrass, stepped up to the board with high hopes, only to have his ball drop on balsamic reduction.
“I wasn’t thrilled about getting balsamic as an ingredient, but I had to be prepared for it when I first saw the list,” Arniaz explained. “When creating cocktails for the masses and one that most people would enjoy, I wouldn’t say balsamic is the first thing people think of.”
That is why the hosts of the Bar Brawl add funky factors: to make the contestants stop and think for a minute. To tap into their years of bartending experience. Anyone can make a simple cocktail, not everyone can make one out of balsamic.
“The first cocktail that came to mind was actually a riff of a Martinez, a spirit-forward stirred cocktail,” Arniaz said. “Pretty in Pink” was her name, and boy was she pretty. (Yes, the cocktail was a she.) Aviation gin, St. Germain, lemon juice, balsamic, and basil topped with pink cold brew tea.
Five minutes feels like a lifetime to the curiously thirsty crowd, but for the bartenders, the time passes in the blink of an eye. They may have a drink in mind, but the second that timer starts and the secret ingredients are determined, all bets are off.
Music is blaring and the crowd is chanting with all eyes on the stage. Arniaz and his competitor took a comradery shot before commencing their round. The clock is ticking and both contestants are in the zone. Shakers are shaking and jiggers are pouring. When the emcee steps out to announce the end of the round, the bartenders add their final touches. They create one cocktail for the judges and send shots out to the crowd. (Lucky us!)
Friends of both bartenders attempt to sway the judges one way or another but to no avail. The judges take their sweet time when coming to a conclusion, going back and forth between both drinks. Hushed discussions are shared between them when deciding who would be the champion of the fifth round.
After a few minutes and more than a few sips, the judges are finally ready to crown a bartender. Pretty in Pink was not the winner, but that didn’t discourage Arniaz.
This was not his first rodeo with Bar Brawl. He competed in the second quarter Bar Brawl last June and fell in love with it.
“[Bar Brawl] is something I will continue to participate in as long as they let me. It’s one night when everyone’s off of work bartending side by side because they love what they do,” Arniaz explained. Even if he doesn’t participate in the future, he said it’s one of his favorite nights and he’ll still come and support his fellow bartenders compete. After all, he said, the most important thing is to have fun. “That’s what these competitions are made for.”