The weather was a little unstable during this past weekend’s Northwest Spirits and Mixology Show. Situated in a mountain valley in the drier, Eastern side of the state, Bend, Oregon, has a reputation of warm, sunny summers, but this year, the spirits event was a bit more of an adventure, winds whipping at the blue Roaring Lion canopies protecting vendor tables from sun or storm, gloomy skies greeting vendors and visitors as they arrived early Saturday morning making way to mid-afternoon sun.
When the Bartender’s Brawl began late in the afternoon, there had been a few powerful gusts through downtown Bend already, tugging on napkins, plastic tasting cups, marketing material, and the like. Competitors Carlos Cuarta and Nick Keane stepped up to mix their cocktails for the judging panel, which included 2011 winner Emily Baker, and blasted through their part of the brawl.
But it was when home bartender Brian Johnson took the stage that the weather got real. Within a few minutes of setting up his glassware – in what was only his second live competition – the overcast clouds parted, unleashing fat raindrops on all of downtown. Bartender’s Brawl emcee, and NW Spirits Show founder, Melodie Buell didn’t miss a beat, tossing on a coat and chatting up the mixer as folks scattered to the nearest dry space. We all made our way to the sidelines, impressed as Johnson continued with his task at hand, rain falling across the bar, event staff scrambling to secure an umbrella over his head. Yet the novice bartender seemed completely unfazed, continuing to pour and garnish just as he had planned. An awe and admiration swept through the crowd as spirits professionals and show-goers alike cheered him on.
Though Johnson came in second place, with Portland bartender, ahem, Drambassador, Jabriel Donohue taking first, the indie spirits festival still made for a memorable experience. “I loved it and had a great time,” said Johnson, who hails from the Tacoma, Washington, area. “I loved talking with the product producers. The whole event was well run and the people were fantastic.”
“I learned a ton from the other competitors, like always bringing multiple mixing tins, buying a plastic bin to hold all of your stuff before you mix. I especially loved the format of this competition. It was open to all, not just industry. Limited ingredients, no sub recipes. I think that encourages innovation and promotes simple drinks.”
In addition to the Bartender’s Brawl, the spirits and mixology show offered guests – many who trickled in from the adjoining Bite of Bend – the opportunity to sample over forty craft spirits, most distilled right here in the Northwest. Local favorites like Imbue, Desert Juniper, Oregon Spirit Distillers, and Whistling Andy were present and pouring, as well as national brands like Martin Miller, Drambuie, St. Germain, and Four Roses. If mixers were your thing, the mindblowing awesomeness of Sage and Sea Farms shrubs and B.G. Reynolds’ syrups were available to taste – as well as three feature bars where ‘tenders were stirring and shaking cocktails with the best of the show. It was the perfect weekend for a bar connoisseur – even a rookie one.
Next up on the Daily Blender docket, the tenth anniversary of Tales of the Cocktail. I’ll have a handful of spirited Q&As leading up to the event that’s happening next month in sunny (and sweaty?) New Orleans – as well as full post-event coverage!
*Photo Credit: Jennifer Heigl / Daily Blender