It's 3 p.m. and the occasional breeze notwithstanding, the top of the Madison Hotel is hot. Even the resort-like canopies overhead at the rooftop's Twilight Sky Terrace can't hold out the insistent sun, and below, the Mississippi stretches out languidly, a banner heralding another long, hot summer ahead. All anyone can think about at this moment is the lineup of icy-cold cocktails to come.
Behind the rooftop bar, a row of ingredients awaits three bar-tending contestants, each of whom will vie for the undying glory, the career-crowning moment, of having crafted the Flyer's Best Summer Cocktail of 2013. Brian Hamilton of Hog & Hominy, Lisa Gradinger of the Majestic Grille, and Evan Potts of the Cove mill around in the corner, waiting for the opportunity to check out the provisions and get their shakers shaking.
The competition is set up much like Chopped or Iron Chef, except that each bartender has been instructed to bring their own summer cocktail essentials, ingredients they are particularly keen on using this season. We've provided an array of Svedka vodkas, flavored and unflavored, and a sampling of Fee Brothers bitters. To that, we've added a selection of four mystery ingredients, purchased from the Memphis Botanic Garden's Farmers Market that afternoon: a bunch of rosemary, two pints of fresh, organic strawberries from Whitton Farms, and sweet tea jam and pickled butternut squash, both from Flora Farms. The competitors must select at least two of the four secret ingredients to use in their cocktails.
Our panel of judges — Michael Hughes, general manager of Joe's Wine & Liquors, Pam Denney, food editor for Memphis magazine, and Chey Fulgham, director of food and beverage for the Madison Hotel — sits off to the side. Lisa Gradinger is up first.
"I really like to keep cocktails simple," Gradinger says. "Three or four ingredients, a back porch sipper that you can make a huge pitcher of or that you can make one at a time."
In 10 minutes, she's whipped up the Miss Palmer, a twist on the Arnold Palmer, with citron vodka, sweet tea jam, fresh strawberries, and lemon juice. She rims the glass with a strawberry and a lemon wedge, and the first round goes out to the judges.
* Miss Palmer
by Lisa Gradinger
2 oz SVEDKA
juice of 1 lemon
1 oz simple syrup
1 tbsp sweet tea jam
Muddle strawberries and sweet tea jam in shaker tin. Add ice and remaining ingredients. Shake and pour into cocktail glass. Garnish with strawberry and lemon wedge.
A nod to Brian Hamilton that his time has come, and the Hog & Hominy bartender makes his way to the bar. The clock starts counting down, and he reaches for the sweet tea jam and the fresh strawberries.
"When I think of summertime drinks, I think 'refreshing,'" he says. "I think Arnold Palmers and fresh fruits and herbs, so the sweet tea jam and strawberries are right in my wheelhouse."
After nearly 20 years in the business, he advises, "go with what you know," and pours in a shot of Strawberry Colada vodka, before snatching some fresh basil out of his bag of summer necessities. He slaps the handful of leaves in his palm, tears them, and tosses them in the mix. "It releases the oils," he says of the rough handling, muddling the leaves with whole strawberries, straining the blend, and popping open a bottle of prosecco to pour on top. He garnishes each tall glass with a tiny strawberry.
* Bella Donna del Sud
by Brian Hamilton
1 1/2 oz SVEDKA Strawberry Colada
3 leaves basil muddled
3 strawberries chopped
1 tsp sweet tea jam
1/2 oz Cocchi Americano
5 dashes of Fee Brothers
dash of lemon juice
Muddle basil and strawberries. Pour all ingredients, except prosecco, into a shaker, straining drink twice. Pour into champagne flute and top with prosecco. Garnish with basil and strawberry.
If ever there were a contestant hearty enough to handle going last, it's Evan Potts — striding up to the bar, flashing with each step the Pabst Blue Ribbon tattoo on his left thigh. The tat betrays his dive-bar roots, maybe his age a little, and the grit that comes from growing up in the Cooper-Young neighborhood before Cooper-Young was ever a twinkle in any developer's eye.
He bucks the trend and goes straight for the pickled butternut squash, muddling chunks of the tender, yellow fruit with spoonfuls of sweet tea jam and lemon juice. He grabs the clementine vodka, hesitates, then pours shots into each glass and tops them all off with orange juice.
"For a lot of summer drinks, if you get some heat, it cools you off," he says. He grabs the bottle of Sriracha from his stash and fills the teaspoon up with red buttons of hot sauce, dunking them into each glass. One fell swoop of his shaker into the ice bucket and he's crushing the cubes with the muddler, almost to the consistency of a slushie, and filling the glasses with the ice and soda water. Potts skips the garnish, letting the gradient of orange in the glass serve as presentation. Out they go for the final round of judging.
* Squash Smash
by Evan Potts
1 tbsp of pickled butternut squash
1 tsp sweet tea jam
1/2 oz lemon juice
1 1/2 oz SVEDKA Clementine vodka
1/2 tsp Sriracha
1 oz orange juice
Muddle first three ingredients. Mix in next three and top off with soda water.
After the judges are finished scribbling down their notes, the tallying begins. Each contestant is scored in four categories: Taste, Presentation, Difficulty/Complexity, and Creativity. Gradinger pulls in 36 points for her Miss Palmer, Hamilton 43 for his Bella Donna del Sud, and Potts brings in 44 points for his Squash Smash, narrowly edging out Hamilton for the win. Though Potts admits he was concerned about the amount of heat in the cocktail, the judges applaud him for it, and it tips the scales in his favor.
We're all a bit curious about how a summer cocktail with all the secret ingredients might taste, so judge and cocktail master Michael Hughes agrees to try his hand at the task. He whips up three glasses of his Farmers Market for our contestants, using mint to yoke the fruity, tangy flavors of the strawberries and pickled squash with the herbal notes of the rosemary.
* Farmers Market
by Michael Hughes
1 sprig rosemary
1/2 oz SVEDKA vodka
2 dashes Fee Brothers Mint bitters
2 dashes of Fee Brothers Lemon bitters
1 barspoon sweet
1/2 barspoons pickled butternut squash
1 tsp lemon juice
pinch of salt
Tear a sprig of rosemary into vodka. Add the mint bitters and lemon bitters. Let that steep while you prepare the rest of the drink. In a glass or metal shaker add remaining ingredients. Muddle that until it is well combined. Add ice, rosemary, and vodka. Shake until well-chilled, combined, and diluted. Strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with a small sprig of rosemary.
The contestants finish up their drinks and head out, some back to their bars, some off to sip on their own favorite summer cocktails. It will be another scorching summer in the Mid-South, and everyone has a drink of choice.
"I'm kind of a purist," Potts says. "I like a good bourbon drink. Or a lemonade with white whiskey or moonshine."
Hamilton agrees. "Bourbon and ginger ale, with a twist of lime."
Gradinger shows her country side a little more. "A spiked watermelon," she says. "I grew up in Missouri, so we'd just take a syringe and a watermelon and inject a bunch of vodka into it. It's simple."
New iPhone app challenges bar patrons to get ballsy.
By Bianca Phillips
On Saturday night, I sat in beer. I rubbed my drink all over my face. I danced alone to J-Tim's "Sexy Back." And I got a kiss from a lesbian.
Admittedly, that's not far off from a typical Saturday night in my world. But this time, I did it on purpose rather than in a drunken stupor. Three friends and I gathered at Jack Magoo's and took turns taking dares from my iPhone using the new interactive bar game app, Bar Ballz.
Developed in Memphis, Bar Ballz is like a digital version of Truth or Dare but without the "truth" part. Two to eight players pass the phone around, choose a difficulty level (easy, medium, or hard), and accept or pass on dares that range from "Point to the person in the bar you would most likely be if you were of the opposite sex" (easy) to "Wearing a ketchup mustache, ask a stranger if they have ever been to prison" (hard).
All challenges are timed. Points are awarded for completed challenges, and the player with the highest score wins. Bar Ballz from Tropical Applications is currently only available for iPhone, but the Android version should be out in about one week. It's priced at 99 cents.
We played four rounds, and my friend Andy won the first two. But I reigned victorious in the last. We made a rule that no one could take an "easy" option, so we found ourselves in some very embarassing situations. At one point, I had to approach a stranger and blink my eyes at them 30 times. I picked a woman sitting with some friends by the pool table.
"I'm playing this bar game where I have to do dares, and I win points for completing them. I have to blink at you 30 times. I'm sorry because I know this is going to be very awkward," I told the woman, who laughed and said, "Go ahead."
The only challenge I refused was coming out of the bathroom with my underwear on the outside of my clothes. My friend Jason, who successfully completed the above-mentioned ketchup mustache dare twice, refused to ask a stranger if he could pluck a single strand of hair. Jason did, however, ask if he could stick his finger in a stranger's nose.
Andy didn't think twice before exposing his "plumber crack" and returning from the bathroom wearing a toilet paper bandana. And though it took some prodding, Jordan eventually acted out his favorite sexual position on a speaker. By the end of the evening, we even had the bartender and a server playing the game with us (it was a slow night).
The idea for Bar Ballz came from two guys in Canada — Brian Child (head of development at Tropical Applications) and Rick Moore — after one dared the other to ask the waitress to return to their table with an article of her clothing in her pocket. The app was developed in Memphis by the Danse, a local company that designs 3D interactive video games and apps.
"I played at Huey's one night a few weeks ago, and we had our entire side of the restaurant roaring with laughter. I was doing the chicken dance and the Macarena," said Madeline Ward, CEO of the Danse. "We want people to have the best time they've ever had in a bar."
Judging by Andy's Facebook status on Saturday night, Ward is getting that wish.
"It's the most fun I've had in a while," Andy posted, just after winning round two.