Ricky Gomez, well known bartender at The Teardrop Lounge, was picked Sunday night as the overall winner to represent Portland in Bombay Sapphire Gin’s competition for the most inspired bartender in America for 2011.
Nine worthy competitors showed off the amazing talent pool of Portland during the competition, much to the delight of the capacity crowd that tasted and approved their inspired cocktails at the Departure Lounge private event.
Ricky and his entry, the Montgomery Burns Cocktail, took home the honors as first among equals Sunday night.
Ricky detailed a consistent over-riding philosophy and vision for his cocktail and delivered it in the glass with dazzling effect. Gomez took some chances, pushing the envelope of gin cocktails into uncharted territory with an audacious addition of unexpected ingredients. And since the focus was on creativity—but within the bounds of still tasting good—Ricky grabbed the brass ring. Well, actually, he grabbed the giant sapphire-hued crystal sculpture trophy that Bombay presented to him.
(There’s money on the line amongst his friends now that he might somehow figure out how to mount the faceted crystal into a ring for bragging rights; but since it is larger than his hand, that would be quite a feat. Not impossible, mind you; so no one is counting out the possibility.)
Ricky created, first in his mind and then in the glass, a reverie inspired by the contrasting flavor sensations of sweet, savory, hot, spicy, smoky and salty. The challenge was, of course, to balance all those ingredients in one drink so that they all played together well and created an impressive taste experience.
There was already savory, of course, with the base of Bombay Sapphire Gin and its ten savory botanical ingredients. Muddled fresh watermelon cubes provided the unique melony sweetness. Lemon juice gave the necessary acidity and tartness to support the framework. Kubler Swiss Absinthe, one of the more subtle and underplayed of absinthes (for an absinthe anyway), added the anise tang for more resonance and depth of flavor (Ricky used very small amounts).
Then the controversial parts were added. The dangerous, challenging parts. The balancing-on-a-tightrope-without-net parts: Ardbeg 10 Islay Single Malt Scotch and jalapeno simple syrup.
Who puts Islay Scotch in a gin drink? Ricky Gomez does. This Portland boy by way of New Orleans knows how to be audacious. And to drive home the point, he went one step further with jalapeno pepper.
Of course, he was precise and careful as well, using only a touch of the Ardbeg for that sea salt and smoke essence, strong enough to be there, but curiously not dominating the mix as much as you might think. And he backed off as much as possible on the heat of the jalapeno by taking out the seeds and using only the skins—still and so, it was touch and go as to whether there might be too much heat remaining (and for some people, there was).
But with a clear vision of what he wanted, and a firm and steady hand putting it all together, Ricky pulled off a winner. And to make sure he did, he went one step further: he added a toothpick garnish of a ball of watermelon touched by a few flakes of crunchy, stony, mineral Black Lava Sea Salt. The sweetness of the watermelon came through, as did the gin and absinthe and the jalapeno, dangerously close to the line and flirting with disaster, and the black flake sea salt and Ardbeg got married discreetly in the background
Creative? Inspired? Little doubt about that. And even considering there were some in the crowd that were puzzled with the Islay smoke, or the jalapeño, or the lava salt, enough of the crowd was taken with the dazzling drink, and the experienced judges were awed by the totality of the combination sufficiently to award him the Sapphire sapphire prize.
Ricky will now go on to the final national competition to be held in Las Vegas, with high expectations of his Portland fans to be a major contender for the ultimate prize of most inspired bartender of the year, and a shout out in the February issue of GQ Magazine.
All the contestants acquitted themselves more than honorably Sunday night. Some special praise was given to three close contenders: Alex Blair, for his interesting and daring perspective on the classic Last Word; Dillon Turner, with his exotic twist of pink peppercorns and floral/fruit flower water “Ceylon”; and Jordan Felix, with his reminder that classic simplicity and focus, with a slight but significant adjustment, can still make a fine, fine cocktail.
Kudos to all who participated, and especially to Ricky Gomez for his nervy creativity.