Nellie’s Sports Bar played host this week to the fourth annual Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic, an annual LGBT bartending competition that takes place in 17 cities across the country, culminating in a final contest during Pride Week in Key West, Fla., featuring the winners from each city.
The scene was as glitter-filled and vodka-soaked as you’d hope it would be, led by Stoli’s LGBT ambassador Patrik Gallineaux, who said of the event, “There was a time when gay bars were our only community centers, our safe spaces. I remember when I was 21 and first went to a gay bar and how I felt instantly accepted for who I was. Everyone there said, ‘You belong,’ and that changed my world.”
Just three bartenders competed in the D.C. competition this year — a maximum of six are allowed — so the odds of winning a six-day trip to Key West in June were pretty good. This year’s cocktail entries had to embrace the theme of Key West while utilizing Stoli brand vodkas; contestants also had to demonstrate their cocktail before an audience of 100 eager imbibers, who would be able to sample each drink, along with four judges, to help declare a winner.
One of the judges, Troy Petenbrink, a D.C.-based food and travel writer known as the Gay Traveler, said he was looking for cocktails that embraced “the excitement, the fun and the dirtiness of Key West.”
Josh Pocock, a bartender at Freddie’s Beach Bar in Arlington, Va., started off the competition with true flair by combining three different Stoli flavors — Razberi, Bluberi and Citro — into a concoction he titled “Purple Haze.” By adding an extract made from red cabbage and a touch of acidity from lemon juice, Pocock’s cocktail magically changed colors, from a deep blue Caribbean color to that of a deep pink sunset. Dropping in a chunk of dry ice to create a smoking effect made for plenty of oohs and ahhs from an appreciative crowd. While the result was overly sweet for some tasters, the wow factor was in full evidence.
If you’ve never heard of a color-changing cocktail, you would certainly have learned about it at this event, because not just one, but two cocktails were given the red cabbage treatment. For the science-challenged, red cabbage juice has a naturally-occurring pigment molecule, anthocyanin, that can change the color of liquids when combined with an acid (to create red tones) or baking soda (for blue tones) — give it a try at your next party.
It was Colt Runion, a bartender at Jack Rose Dining Saloon, who used a red cabbage syrup to effect a color change for his cocktail entry, called “Changing and Showing One’s New Colors,” which he mixed up with enthusiastic vocal support from his fiancé in the audience. Eschewing the flavored vodkas, Runion stuck with classic Stoli Premium to create a high-end cocktail that incorporated a Czech herbal liqueur, Becherovka and sherry, garnished with pickled golden beets. It was a sophisticated sipper for discerning drinkers, but the judges disagreed as to its suitability for the Key West theme.
Event judge and D.C. drag favorite Sacha Adams called Runion’s slightly savory cocktail “an acquired taste”; Matthew Harden, winner of the 2016 D.C. competition, simply said, “It’s not for me,” while Petenbrink said, “This is a fabulous cocktail but I would not drink it in Key West.” JP Sabatier, GM of Rappahannock River Oysters, contradicted his fellow judges, saying, “I might order this in Key West; it’s a great cocktail with a delicious taste. When you add that pickled garnish, it’s like music in your mouth.” Stoli ambassador Gallineaux called it “one of the most interesting and well-done cocktails we’ve ever had.”
The third cocktail, presented by bartender Sean Brevard of Nellie’s, offered up the freshest flavor of the three entries and was accurately deemed a “patio pounder” by the crowd — a variation of a strawberry daiquiri, chock full of fresh strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries, and with an addition of watermelon liqueur — the epitome of summer in a glass.
Ultimately, flair may have won out over flavor, with Pocock taking the prize for his visually creative entry — and even Pocock may have been surprised by his ability to create such a crowd-pleaser. “I’m honestly a whiskey drinker,” he said, “but I do really love a Lemon Drop martini, so I used that as a starting point.” In preparation for the final competition in Key West in June, he’s planning on taking some pointers from the judges. Look for Pop Rocks on the rim of the glass instead of rock sugar and a touch more acidity. He’ll also plan to bring his game face: “I love interacting with customers, but this was definitely a different environment, presenting in front of an audience like that. I’ll be sure to be more upbeat and bring more personality to my presentation. Now I know what to expect.”
Fancy an opportunity to go to Key West next year? You don’t have to actually be a working bartender to enter the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic, so start practicing your mixology skills now.
Kristen Hartke is a D.C.-based food and beverage writer. Follow her kitchen adventures on Instagram, @kristenhartke.