Once a year, in the muggy heat of July, thousands of bartenders flock to New Orleans for the largest cocktail conference of the year, Tales of the Cocktail.
It is estimated that this year 22,000 of the world’s finest craft cocktail nerds — including a healthy contingent from Asheville’s bar scene — have either flown, driven or just drunkenly appeared in town to learn from the nation’s most knowledgeable mixology minds. Along with seminars, tasting rooms and classes, there are also competitions and awards ceremonies.
One particular company, Merlet, asked bartenders across the country to come up with their own riff on the classic sidecar cocktail, which generally consists of cognac, triple sec and lemon. Among a slew of finalists from as far afield as New York and Oregon, Asheville’s own Nicole Jean Anhalt of Top of the Monk takes the stage on Friday, July 18, to compete for a trip to Merlet Distillery in France and a chance to show off her concoction at the Paris Bar Show.
Anhalt hails from Charleston, S.C. and moved to Asheville last fall. “I grew up in a military family, so there isn’t really a place that I am from, but I claim Charleston,” she says.
An experienced pastry chef with a degree from Johnson and Wales, Anhalt has worked for Charleston staples like the Glass Onion, as well as for South Carolina’s only French master chef, Nico Romo, at his oft-touted restaurant, Fish, deftly gliding between front-of-house management and back-of-house baking.
Perhaps her success in the sidecar competition comes from a long family history with the cocktail. “It’s a family drink for us. The sidecar is an Anhalt family tradition. We drink them every time we are together,” she says. “My grandmother passed away about a year-and-a-half ago, and when I saw this competition come up, I felt reminiscent and applied.”
But competition will be tough as the six finalists are being judged by the incomparably brilliant Tony Conigliaro owner of the famed “bar with no name,” a craft molecular gastronomy bar in London, as well as Luc Merlet of the Merlet distillery.
Anhalts submission and personal take on the traditional sidecar is a mix of Meyer lemon juice, Merlet cognac, Merlet triple sec and the vanilla-infused Liquor 43 served in a glass rimmed with vanilla sugar made from Madagascar vanilla. “It’s simple, but it’s elegant,” she says.
Xpress contributor Jonathan Ammons is reporting this week from Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans. Check back for updates on the sidecar competition and other news from the event.