Twist on basic black at Art of Mixology
By Lou Fancher
Apparently, black is the new black.
One hour before bartender Ryan Wehrenberg of Lafayette’s Cooperage American Grille won “Mixologist of the Year” at the Lamorinda Arts Council’s third annual Art of Mixology competition, Thomas Ott knew he was holding — and sipping — a winner.
“It doesn’t look like it tastes,” said the Pleasanton resident about “The Chimney Sweeper.” The black licorice-colored cocktail resembled something potentially poisonous, he suggested, but was instead packed with intriguing layers.
“You taste the hibiscus, then a sweetness, like charcoal mixed with honey, then licorice and a biting finish that’s like a good red wine. It makes you want to drink it again.”
But there are 23 other shot glass-size samples to evaluate, so Ott moves on without a repeat.
Mixology is held every October at Orinda Theatre Square and is the nonprofit arts council’s largest fundraiser. Featuring up to 25 professional or amateur bartenders and their concoctions, co-founder and chair Kal Deutsch said attendance has grown each year.
In 2016, he estimated the number of guests at more than 300. As an amateur mixologist whose latest creation involves a vacuum pressure chamber in which oak wood chips sponge up and release vodka until it is brown and are then infused by Deutsch with strawberry and rhubarb, he’s thrilled his hobby brings pleasure — and vital support for the arts in Lamorinda.
“I like cocktails, I like art, I like fun,” he says. “This combines all of those things.”
And while the smiles and happy conversations at the event demonstrate lots of folks over age 21 agree, there are reasons other than simply fun entertainment behind Mixology’s increasing popularity. Deutsch said a final tally of the day’s profits would take days to compile, but estimated close to $20,000 would be raised.
“Another reason this event is growing is that bartenders have stepped up their game,” said Jessica Maria, 20-year bartender and co-owner since 2008 of the Hotsy Totsy Club in Albany.
One of the event’s three judges, Maria has adjudicated from the beginning and said that presentation has amped up and bartenders are building their own syrups, instead of simply using flavored liqueurs.
Holding up as an example, the twine-wrapped “Neck of the Woods” created by Kyle Tran of Park Bistro that featured tiny mushrooms, bright orange flowers, and a grass-like straw, Maria said, “It’s striking to look at and he’s making his own apple shrub (a blend of fruit, sugar, and vinegar), not using a bottled apple liqueur.”
The judges included Maria, Chris Tunstall, bar consultant and co-founder of ABarAbove.com, and Bay Area food and beverage journalist Deborah Grossman. Following Wehrenberg’s $500 first-place prize, the judges selected Tran’s visually arresting cocktail (second place) and Rooftop’s Megan Abraham’s “The Cleopatra” (third place), a drink combining Golden State Vodka infused with a variety of fruits.
Adults at Mixology this year were given an ArrowPass bracelet and scanned “readers” at each table to provide proof of age and to vote for the “Audience Favorite.”
Ruth’s Chris Steak House bartender Rachael Kruse mixed “Muddled Jalapeno” and “Muddled Filthy Cherries” with egg white, vanilla bean, lemon juice, Spirit Works Barrel Aged Gin and Spiced Cherry Bitters to come up with the crowd-pleasing “The Hot Girl.”
Abraham’s dramatic Pharaoh costume and Egyptian-theme presentation won the “Art of Staging Award” and “Top Amateur” prize went to Shweta Srivastava’s complex, tequila-based “Imli-briated.”
Mixology co-founder Ya-Hui Monteilh said that care is taken to make sure the event that involves alcohol is safe.
“The bartenders have strict guidelines and can only poor small samples, less than half an ounce. There are dump buckets, so if you don’t want the whole sample, you can empty your glass.”
Water stations, referrals for taxi service and free food provide extra measures of safety. Asked if bartenders can decline to serve a guest if they appear to have had too many drinks, Monteilh said, “absolutely.”
Bartender Sara Sakurada said the opportunity to work with sloe gin while making her “Sloe Death” cocktail was one incentive to join the competition. “I also wanted to play on classic cocktails like “Death in the Afternoon” and introduce people to Mediterranean flavors we use at our restaurant, Zaytoon.”
But Adrenne Vasquez, of Pleasant Hill, might best exemplify why Mixology is popular. Tasting a cocktail she said was “tart, with no alcohol kickback,” the automotive mechanic said it is a way to learn what she likes. “That it’s a benefit for the arts,” she added, “well, that’s an even better reason to be here.”