There may be stranger places to hold a cocktail competition than a Greek Orthodox church, but I’m not sure you’d find one in Asheville. But then again, the Pharisees always called Jesus a “lover of wine,” so one can assume he would have enjoyed a well-crafted spiritous beverage as well had they been around in his day. Nevertheless, the crowds turned out in droves to be baptized in booze for this year’s Elixir, the official cocktail competition of the Asheville Wine & Food Festival, at the MHCC Center — which is also the location for the annual Asheville Greek Festival.
The competition featured nine bars competing for the top prize — a vacation to Florida. Among the competitors were Pulp, Sunny Point Café, Top of the Monk, The Junction, Buffalo Nickel, Rhubarb, MG Road and the Grand Bohemian’s Red Stag Grill. The competitors were circled in the center of the room serving samples of their concoctions to guests, while representatives of the spirits they were required to use were set up along the perimeter to pour tastes of the raw liquors. Among the purveyors were Topo from Chapel Hill, Defiant Whiskey, Troy and Sons, Fair Game Beverage Co., Covington Vodka, Cardinal Gin and Muddy River Rums.
Girls dressed in short, frilly skirts and fishnet hose (which was somehow intended to fit this years circus theme) served hors d’oeuvres, which were quickly devoured, leaving latecomers to drink their dinner. At the judges’ table, a panel of delegates from magazines and news papers hunched over score sheets, ranking the cocktails in five different categories; presentation, drink name, taste, inspiration and originality.
Elixir judge Kipper Schauer, Asheville’s representative for Yelp, explains, “Each drink was so different that you kind of had to figure out what each bartender was aiming for, what their concept was, and then judge each piece as an individual work of art, rather than a typical competition where you’re analyzing each element.”
Rhubarb’s Spencer Shultz doled out Bunker Brothers’ punch, a mix of Fair Game’s apple brandy, gin, Cynar (a bitter artichoke liqueur), lemon, chamomile, orange oil and rhubarb bitters.
“Pulp utilized smoked pork and fig in their drink,” says Schauer, “and that smokiness really enhanced it.”
Another creative offering came from Buffalo Nickel’s Stephen Wheeler. “Buffalo Nickel’s Reuben cocktail was probably one of the wildest things I’ve ever had in my life,” Schauer notes of the mix of Defiant whiskey infused with rye berries, Fair Game apple brandy infused with caraway seeds, pumpernickel infused Vya vermouth topped with a peppercorn, powdered corned beef, Swiss cheese espuma and flamed bitters made by Raleigh-based company Crude. “That one got a [score of] five for originality for the concept alone. … When you had it all together, it tasted like a Reuben.”
In the end, there was both a winner and a runner-up — a first for Elixer. Sunny Point’s Noah Hermanson went above and beyond, earning himself the runner-up award with his four-course meal of drinks.” His offering started with an amuse-bouche of a classic Carolina daiquiri with Muddy River rum; a salad course of gin and cucumber-borage tonic with Cardinal Gin; an entree of ox heart bloody Mary with fresh tomato paste and beef reduction, and finally a dessert course of a roasted peach soda and bourbon vanilla float.
“We had to figure out how to even judge it,” explains Schauer. “Do we judge the whole spread as one drink? How do you actually begin to judge that one?”
The top prize, however, went to Top of the Monk’s Kala Brooks, whose cocktail, The Greatest of Ease, boasted Covington vodka, absinthe, sauvignon blanc and lemon-parsley saturated syrup topped with Crude bitters. “The citrus notes on the end were really pleasant,” says Schauer. “I hate licorice or any flavors of anise … and for that one to actually win me over — I could actually see myself ordering that drink at a bar.”