Reports from Tales of the Cocktail: Asheville edged out by Brooklyn, N.Y. in national cocktail competition

Top of the Monk bartender Nikki Anhalt, third from left, competed on Friday, July 18, in the national sidecar competition in New Orleans. In the end, the win went to Aaron Butler, second from left, of Jakewalk in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo by Jonathan Ammons
Top of the Monk bartender Nikki Anhalt, third from left, competed on Friday, July 18, in the national sidecar competition in New Orleans. In the end, the win went to Aaron Butler, second from left, of Jakewalk in Brooklyn, N.Y. Photo by Jonathan Ammons

On a rainy Friday afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, Asheville’s own Nicole Anhalt came in from the downpour to stake her claim in this year’s Sidecar by Merlet Cocktail Competition. Hosted annually at the country’s largest cocktail conference, Tales of the Cocktail, seven bartenders from across the country competed for a trip to the Merlet distillery in Cognac, France.

Anhalt, a familiar face behind the bar at Top of the Monk, faced stiff competition, including many veterans of the competitive cocktail scene. Among the competitors were Aaron Butler of Jakewalk in Brooklyn, N.Y.; James Menite of Crown in New York City; Sofia Present of Middle Branch in New York City; Tyler Stevens of Teardrop in Portland, Ore. and Kelly Verardo of Restaurant North in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y.

Deciding their outcome were judges Luc Merlet, owner of Merlet Spirits; Chad Solomon of the beverage consulting company Cuffs and Buttons; Kenta Goto of the Pegu Club; Kylie Kulp of the popular blog Booze for Babes and last year’s winner, Mike Jones.

Hosted by Steve Schneider of the now-legendary New York City bar Employees Only bedecked in a leather vest and cutoff gloves, each contestant was given eight minutes to complete two servings of two separate cocktails: their variation on a classic sidecar and their own original creation using the array of Merlet products provided.

Each minute over time cost each contestant points, leading to some shaky hands and rushed speeches from the mixologists. Traditionally, a sidecar is made with cognac, lemon and triple sec, but contestants were judged on their creativity and originality within that base framework, with additions and variations welcomed.

Anhalt served her riff on her late grandmother’s Crystal Coupe, a tip of the hat to her family’s tradition of drinking sidecars at family gatherings. “The Sidecar is an Anhalt family tradition,” she told the judges. “We drink them whenever we are together.”

When the drink was strained from her shaker, each judge sipped upon her mix of Merlet cognac and triple sec (two products not even available through the ABC in North Carolina), Liquor 43, Meyer lemon and a rim of Madagascar vanilla sugar.

Despite the deftly crafted cocktail and beating the buzzer by over a minute, Anhalt’s valiant showing did not bring the Merlet cocktail championship home to Asheville. Instead, it was Aaron Butler of Brooklyn’s Jakewalk that will be finding himself in France very soon.

Butler had been in more than eight competitive finals without a victory, so his win came as quite a shock to even him. “Wait… really?” he queried upon hearing of his success.

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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