I Left My Hawthorne Strainer in San Francisco

hawthorne strainer

It’s long, silver, springy, and kinda looks like the one above. 

I didn’t really leave my Hawthorne strainer there.  Just thought this was a cute play on words.  I did, though, leave behind a few brain cells that I’ve just now re-grown.  It’s been about four days since I took my trip to San Francisco for World Cocktail Week.  Every year, various cities across the world celebrate all that is the cocktail – with parties, educational events, bartender gatherings…

I had never experienced the full on event that is WCW.  And in my opinion (which does not really mean that much), San Francisco tops the list of best places to imbibe during cocktail week – actually, best places to imbibe period!  The main impetus behind my going to San Francisco was to compete in the US Bartender’s Guild National Championship.  I won our local NY chapter’s competition with a drink I call “The Pulitzer,” and just when I thought I didn’t have to slap on that black suit and white button-down shirt required for all USBG competitions once again, I was told the fine folks at Fernet-Branca would send me to nationals in SF.  Free trip?  I was down.

San Francisco is constantly in the vocabulary of bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts alike.  The history, cocktail culture, modesty, and consistent want and need of more education in this West coast city is quite prevalent.  The bartenders are as nice as can be – the cocktails are balanced and made with care wherever you go – and the openness and willingness to share ideas and inspirations struck a chord with me.  It is true that San Francisco is much smaller than NYC, and that in smaller cities the community tends to be tighter and more in tune with each other.  Yet this was refreshing, and something I hadn’t really expected until my first sip sitting at the bar at Nopa.  After all, the great  father of mixology Jerry Thomas even had a bar here called the Occidental.  The bartenders here are in good company. 

The U.S. Bartender’s Guild creates a community just by being present in one’s beloved city, but this was epitomized in SF, where the guild is strong and the membership numerous.  I competed against talent I had never been exposed to before – the strength and gusto of Armando from Las Vegas – the consistency and skill of Renaldo from San Francisco – needless to say, the competition was tough and the pressure thick.

The Competition Begins

Sponsored by Tres Generaciones Tequila, the USBG National Competition was held at Harry Denton’s Starlight Room – a nightclub on the 21st floor of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in Union Square.  The views at the top were amazing, and the space couldn’t have been more suited to what the day was about to hold.  The San Francisco chapter competed in their local competition earlier in the day, and the winner of that would then compete later on in the national competition.  At around 5:30pm the national competition began, with Bobby “G” Gleason from Beam Global serving as Emcee, and Livio Laurio, USBG National President, holding forth as technical judge.  The tasting judges were all sequestered in a separate room, as the cocktail entries were to be tasted blind.

USBG competitions couldn’t be more stylized and awkward for most: one must use thongs when picking up fruit and garnishes, pour your cocktail from left to right, never drip onto the white cloth napkin lining your work station, show your empty shaker to the technical judge, etc.  The rules for IBA (International Bartender’s Association, of which the US has a chapter: USBG) competitions number approx. 10 pages, and dissecting them can take weeks, if not months.  Challenging it was, and up for it was I.  As I approached the stage to set up my work station, I looked out into the audience and saw the spectators eyes staring back at me, eagerly awaiting my presentation.  Nerve-racking?  Absolutely.  Fun?  Heck yeah!  I mixed up my drink, lifted it high above my head at the end, and walked off the stage with a sense of pride for my NY chapter, knowing that I had done the best that I could, and that I really had a chance at taking home the gold.

The winners were announced shortly after 8pm, and although I didn’t win, I know that Armando will respectfully and skillfully represent our country in Berlin at the World Cocktail Championships.  Oh, and he gets a free trip to the Ice Hotel in Sweden courtesy of Absolut Vodka.  Did I mention that? 

The Bars

 I’ll keep this section short and sweet, as the photos below are really what you’ve been waiting for – the hard proof of my visit to SF.  The first night of my trip, I was taken around by Reza Esmaili, a very enthusiastic and kind-hearted bar-man and USBG member.  The whirlwind of a time with Reza began at Fly-Trap, a middle-eastern restaurant where he designed the cocktail list and program with great care and pride.  I sipped Reza’s very own minted white vinegar syrup, which he uses in the “Minted Memory,” along with Bombay Gin, Pimm’s No. 1, and lemon.  The “Minted Memory” was then prepared for me, and as I slurped the last sip in record time, I realized the drink was just a memory.  And it’s still engrained in me and probably will be for quite some time.  Following our memorable, although be it brief, time at Fly-Trap, we  hit up a loft party being held by Altamar Brands, the fine folks behind Kubler Absinthe and Right Gin.  The music was pumping and the drinks killer.

Before I release you from my lofty lingual expressions, I’d like to give some shout-outs to some of the other superb places I visited and people I met:

Neyah White at NOPA and his “Mexican Standoff” (Mezcal, Averna, creme de cacao, hellfire bitters),

Steve at Boulevard with his “Black Briar” (blackberry and pasilla pepper puree, Woodford Reserve, and a lemon twist),

The Rye Club cocktail at The Slanted Door (Sazerac Rye, orchard apricot brandy, lime juice, egg white and Peychaud’s bitters),

H at Elixir mixing up some mean Pisco Sours,

Duggan at Cantina doing what he does best,

Bryan, Mark, and Sean from the Colorado Bartender’s Guild,

David Nepove and everyone at the USBG SF Chapter,

Harry Denton for being himself,

Debbie Rizzo of Drink-PR for getting me into the CUESA event,

Tres Generaciones tequila,

and finally Fernet-Branca, without whom, none of this would have been possible!!!

Thanks guys!  “Til next time, when I promise to visit all of the places I didn’t get to visit during this trip.  There are just too darned many awesome places!


Grown-Ups, Too, Can Have Fun in Orlando!

What I speak of is last week’s Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America Convention held at the illustrious JW Marriott Resort Hotel in sunny, kid-saturated Orlando, Florida.  If you can imagine multiple levels of pools, tropical rainforest-like gardens, a golf course, packs of Suits making distribution deals, and me – along with a handful of other mixologists from across the country, judging nearly 2oo spirits and liqueurs.  How, you might ask, was this feat accomplished without ending up sprawled out on the convention show floor, eyelashes fluttering, drool leaking out of my mouth, and a stomach about to burst?  It’s all about technique, folks.  Of course we didn’t swallow.  Spitting is key, along with drinking plenty of water and eating plenty of bread, cheese, and celery sticks.  That’s right.  Celery sticks.

So along with the relaxation I enjoyed by the many pools at the JW Marriott, I met some really neat folks.  First there are the two gentlemen by the pool who stopped me in mid-track and asked me to join them.  They turned out to be contractors who build distributor warehouses, and were very curious to learn a bit more about the spirits biz.  They quizzed me and tested me and picked my brain, and by the end, I couldn’t even believe how much I knew about the business.

There’s Joel Black and Elad Zvi, two very talented mixologists from L.A. and Miami, respectively.  We compared notes, judged some really great products together, and  judged some really awful products together (mainly those ready to drink cocktails).

Ann Tuennerman rounded out the judges circle.  She’s the powerhouse behind that week-long cocktail festival they call Tales of The Cocktail in New Orleans every year.

And then there are those lovely ladies from Tasting Panel Magazine, without whom, none of this would be possible.  Allison Levine and Meridith May did an amazing job organizing the tastings, and basically keeping us at bay, which after sun and booze, can be a tricky thing to master.

Some old friends were in attendance, as well.  Ben Jones of Rhum Clement and Colin Appiah of U’Luvka Vodka were there, and we had some great times together.  One of those times was when we crashed a private cocktail party at the  hotel.  Remember guys?  We snuck in with my media badge, drank some wine, ate some apps, and came to find out this was a party for Dan Akroyd’s new wines.  Yes, the same Dan Akroyd of Crystal Head Vodka (go to this website – very cool) .  Could you believe it?!  Check out the photos below for one of me and my new BFF Dan Akroyd.

My pals from St. Germain were there.  They seem to be everywhere.  Rob, Elizabeth, and Samantha represented their brand with the same gusto bartenders evoke when they pour that delicious liqueur into their cocktails.  One bit of new info from the St. G folks – the newly released Creme de Yvette.  This classic ingredient made popular by the Aviation cocktail is back, re-created from the original recipe much prized by cocktail enthusiasts.  This is a must-have for anyone’s home bar.  Dinner at Luma the second evening was absolutely wonderful.  Although nearly 30 miles from our hotel, the drive was well worth it, and the cocktails (made with St. G, of course) were definitely something to write home about.  Or write on a blog about.  Which is what I’m doing now.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with a photographic retrospective of my 3 days in Disney-dominated Orlando, Florida.  Quack, and enjoy:


The lobby of the JW Marriott Orlando.


Joel Black from L.A. loving the attention he rightly deserves.


And the judging begins.  See…celery sticks…


Elad Zvi from Bar-Lab Consulting holding up some neon-colored liquids ready to be judged.


Betcha didn’t know funny man Dan Akroyd had his own line of wines.


The winner’s case.  One of our favorites: Pumpkin Spice Cream Liqueur from a company called Creamy-Creation.  Go to their website why don’t ya?


See what’d I tell ‘ya?  Me and Dan: BFF.

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