Ski Town Showdown: Whiskey and cocktails take center stage at Jackson’s bartender throw down

By on November 29, 2017

Do you take your whiskey with gunpowder? Or would you prefer a sage-smoked glass? Whatever your preference, the expert bartenders competing in this year’s Bartender Shootout are ready to conjure up a drink to tickle your boozy fancy.

Wyoming Whiskey, a Wyo-born whiskey company, will be hosting the shootout, which gives bartenders a chance to show off their skills in crafting creative – and delicious – cocktails.

And every year, they deliver.

The premise is simple. The competing bartenders have five minutes to craft cocktails using Wyoming Whiskey’s small batch bourbon or its Outryder Straight American Whiskey and two to six ingredients — ice and water don’t count.

David DeFazio, founder and COO of the Wyoming Whiskey, said he has seen some impressive and unusual drinks emerge from the competition over the years, and at times, the results have astounded him.

He’s seen unique garnishes like an orange peel curled around a lavender spring.

“The aroma of it was just divine,” DeFazio said.

One of the more memorable drinks was courtesy of a bartender from Cody, who created a drink called “Cabin Fever.” The bartender crafted a chimney from a cinnamon stick and used dry ice to give the appearance of smoke.

Another bartender froze a rose inside the ice he used in his drinks.

This is the third year Wyoming Whiskey has hosted a bartender competition. The first year focused on a competition between bartenders from around Wyoming. This year, though, they’ve changed up the format to a ski town showdown, pitting competitors from Aspen and Jackson against each other.

“The big challenge for us as a small brand is getting the attention of bar tenders,” DeFazio said.

DeFazio wanted to create an event that would not only familiarize bartenders with Wyoming Whiskey, but stamp it into their minds for when they make whiskey recommendations and create new signature cocktails for their bar and restaurant menus, he said.

The top 10 finalists competing in the showdown were chosen from an earlier round of competition, which plucked the five best bartenders from Aspen and the five best from Jackson.

Representing Jackson in the finals is Amber Pollack, who actually is from Casper and works with Backwards Distilling. She’ll compete alongside Rene Woodmencey from Teton Tiger, Wolfgang Reckart from the Rose, Zach Isler from the Rose and Christina Molofsky from Piste Mountain Bistro.

All the bartenders have to use the same drink they used in the regional competitions, but are allowed – and encouraged–to tweak it.  

The payoff for these bartender badasses is two-fold: Not only will they have the chance to earn a title and some serious bragging rights, but they are also up for some serious prizes, including $2,500 in cash, new skis or a snowboard and a belt buckle, DeFazio said.

Finalists also receive gifts like a knife, a day ski pass at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and other prizes.

Judges score drinks based on appearance, creativity and taste.

“When it comes down to it, the more simple the cocktail the better,” DeFazio said. “We are looking for a drink that is enhancing the spirit, not trying to cover the spirit.”

The winners from Jackson’s regional contest each kept their cocktail recipe on the minimal end and used only about three or four ingredients, DeFazio said.

David Kaplan, a Jackson native and co-founder and owner of Death & Co. in New York and Denver, is one of the judges. The fun part of the contest is that bartenders can create drinks that wouldn’t necessarily work on a bar menu, he said, and are free to use crazy garnishes or expensive ingredients.

“But sometimes they run away with that creative freedom they don’t always get in their restaurants and forget it also has to be drinkable,” he said.

Sometimes people get too creative, like the bartender who used elk jerky simple syrup. It would have been delicious for a Bloody Mary contest, but it didn’t work for the whiskey competition.

“You really want the drink to be incredibly drinkable and you really want Wyoming Whiskey to be the star,” he said.

Cocktail competitions allow bartenders to showcase specialized skills people don’t always get to see, Kaplan said. Creating a new drink is part art and science. It has to capture the eye and surprise the palate. It’s like creating a new culinary dish from scratch—its far more complicated than tweaking a classic recipe, Kaplan said.

While the competition is built around, and to showcase, the bartenders, it’s also meant to be a social spectating event. Bartenders  pick music to play while they craft their cocktails and some even wear costumes. Audience members will get a chance to try the drinks and also win prizes — including a snowboard or pair of skis. Wyoming Whiskey will also offer samples of products like its recently released single barrel bourbon whiskey, DeFazio said.

If you’ve ever wanted to witness the artistry that goes into crafting creative cocktails, or maybe just sample something different, don’t sleep on the Wyoming Whiskey Bartender Shootout Ski Town Showdown Finals. It’s a whiskey win-win for everyone. PJH

Wyoming Whiskey Bartender Shootout will be held Friday, Dec. 1 at Pink Garter Theater. The event starts at 8 p.m. and is free to observe.

About Kelsey Dayton

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