Friend of BarLifeUK Laura Foster jumped in the judging hot seat for us in Edinburgh recently, here is her report on the days fun and games.
After the blazing sunshine of the London heat came the rain in Edinburgh for the Scottish leg of the competition, which had taken up residence in Bramble. Mothership’s very own Jon Hughes was behind the stick, making delicious mezcal drinks to lubricate proceedings at the start.
Meanwhile, bartenders from north of the border gathered, alongside competitors from Newcastle and Portsmouth, to duke it out for a place in the Zignum and El Recuerdo finals, and a chance to win a trip to Oaxaca in Mexico.
The challenge? To create a cocktail with Zignum Reposado, or El Recuerdo Abocado con Gusano, using at least 30ml of the star spirit, and a maximum of one homemade ingredient. Those competing in the Zignum round were to draw on the inspiration of Oaxaca’s history and traditions, while those opting for El Recuerdo could look to the flavours of Oaxaca and mezcal. Bartenders could enter both brand competitions if they chose, and most did.
The inimitable Jamie Mac was on judging duties, alongside BarLifeUK and Luis van der Velde from the brands themselves fresh off a trip to Oaxaca.
The El Recuerdo round was up first, with Bramble’s own Sam Baxendale coming out of cocktail competition retirement. He drew on his memories of visiting Benito Juarez market in Oaxaca City, where you could find fresh pineapple juice, amongst other flavours. His drink mixed the mezcal and fresh pineapple juice with Ancho Reyes Verde, saline and a Braemble liqueur float, resulting in a refreshing, if spicy, opener.
Other highlights came from Jay MacAulay of The Alchemist in Portsmouth and Oscar McClure from Sohe in Newcastle. Jay’s drink was a take on a mezcal Old Fashioned, with a spherified soursop garnish to be burst and mixed into the drink. A vanilla-and-spice mezcal kick pre-pop gave way to a drink heightened with gentle apple-like soursop notes. Oscar, meanwhile, took inspiration from the tradition of serving Sangrita, building some of the classic ingredients from this ‘little blood’ agave side serve into an incredibly moreish Bloody Mary twist. Tomato juice, jalapeno brine, pomegranate oleo saccharum, lime juice, Tabasco and Worcester sauce were mixed with El Recuerdo to impressive effect.
Zach Sapato of The Absent Ear in Glasgow drew – literally – on his family’s Mexican roots, linking the flavours of the mezcal to the different ingredients in his stirred-down dessert drink that mixed the El Recuerdo with Fernet Vallet, a popular digestif in Mexico, bianco vermouth and crème de cacao.
Of gods, cacao and mezcal
Following a lunch of pizza and Zignum El Diablos, competitors geared up for the second leg, using Zignum Reposado to make their drinks. The mezcal is rested in American oak for eight months, and wears its oak influence on its sleeve, with clear notes of vanilla and cocoa mingling with a spicy, toasty agave note.
The majority of the field picked up on these flavours, and built their entry using some form of chocolate or cocoa, giving a nod to the fact that cacao used to be used as currency in Mexico.
There were four stand-out competitors in this round, who’d clearly done their homework when it came to Oaxaca’s history and traditions.
First up was Scott Stevenson from Gaga in Partick, who discussed the sustainable ethos of Zignum, which cultivates Espadin from seed in its greenhouses, amongst other practices. His cocktail was inspired by tejate, a drink that was believed by the indigenous tribes to have been given to the people by the gods, and included cacao. Mixing the mezcal with white cacao and chilli liqueurs and mole bitters, the stirred down drink was sweet and earthy, with the mole helping to ground that sweetness.
Sam Baxendale’s entry was inspired by the love story of Princess Donaji and Prince Nucano, who were from enemy tribes. Needless to say, the star-crossed lovers’ tale ends in Donaji’s death, only for her grave to be found years later due to a beautiful flower growing out of it. Sam played on the floral theme by mixing Amaro Montenegro with the Zignum, Branca Menta, Cross Brew Coffee liqueur, xchocolatl mole bitters and foamer bitters.
Hoot the Redeemer’s Ellie Raeside spoke about the Zapotec belief that their Gods and Goddesses would give them signs and gifts, including cacao and agave, the latter of which they believed was initially cooked by being struck by lightning. Combining Zignum with cocoa nib-infused bourbon (a nod to Mexico’s reliance on corn), coconut syrup and saline solution, the sweet flavours of the cocktail were balanced out by the dark, super-dry cocoa nib characters in the bourbon.
Zach Sapato rounded things off by dimming the lights, bringing out the candlelight and playing a Oaxacan song based on a woman being stuck at the gateway between the worlds of life and death. His drink, The Bridge Between, was based around the carvings that decorate the gateways of Oaxaca city, and the messages that they convey. He’d created a lightbox depicting some of these carvings, upon which his drink, a mezcal horchata twist whose genius addition of celery bitters helped to boost the green flavours of the Zignum in the drink, was served.
The judges retired to deliberate… and found themselves in a dilemma: one bartender had won both rounds for the quality of their drinks and their inventive presentations. With the possibility of awarding a wild card place to another competitor, the results were locked in. Zach Sapato had won a place in both the El Recuerdo and the Zignum finals, while Sam Baxendale had taken the wild card spot for Zignum. They’ll progress to the final in Birmingham this month. It was a strong showing on the day, especially given the fact this was the first competition for many of the entrants.
Many thanks to Sam Burke for overseeing proceedings with aplomb, and Jon Hughes for his masterful hosting skills.
Zach Sapato, The Absent Ear, Glasgow
A Path Of Flavour
30ml El Recuerdo Abocado con Gusano
30ml Fernet Vallet
30ml bianco vermouth
30ml crème de cacao liqueur
Stir down over ice and strain into a tulip glass garnished with Sal de Chapulin (Mexican cricket salt).