Martin Miller’s Gin Master’s Competition, New York City

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Update: I’ve been given permission to use some of Silamith Weir’s photos that she shot over the weekend, so you’ll see some new/better pictures interspersed in the post now.

I landed in New Jersey a day after the competitors arrived in New York, so upon arrival I was immediately whooshed away to the beautiful home of Josh Emmett and Helen Cranage, who very conveniently happen to have a Prohibition-era speakeasy bar in their basement. A quick shower later and I was helping Jason Scott of Edinburgh’s Bramble Bar and Lounge stock the bar with loads and loads of our favorite, Martin Miller’s Gin.

Soon the vans pulled up and out poured most of the competitors – and even some of the judges. The bar was rocking like it was 1929 as Sam Kershaw held down the stick and kept everyone in Clover Clubs, Hayes Fizzes, Aviations, Martinis, Last Words and Gin-and-Tonics.

Fevertree Tonic Water

The party went on for hours, with the US and the UK teams mingling and getting to know one another while Jamie Boudreau of Tini Bigs in Seattle embarked on his campaign of verbal terror, clearly hoping to gain an edge on the competition a day early.

But as all good things must eventually come to an end, the party was soon over and we were on our way to visit our good friend Jim Meehan at Please Don’t Tell for some truly incredible cocktails and a nonstop parade of gourmet (or would it be gourmand if you eat three of them?) hot dogs.

But the competition was looming on everyone’s mind, so we thanked Jim for his gracious hospitality and inspiring cocktails and made our way back to the hotel for a brief nap.

The following morning found us in the dark, windowless, yet timeless and elegant Death and Company for the first-ever Martin Miller’s Gin Master’s Competition. After a brief introduction of the contest and judges, we were on our way and being treated to a show by Giles Looker of Soulshakers. Giles grew up in Oxford, an area with a rich tradition of rowing, so Giles presented the judges with his version of a Pimm’s Cup with sweet vermouth, gin, Campari, Cointreau, grapefruit, fresh citrus and 7-Up. But what really set his presentation apart was the miniature rowing race/drinking game that he presented alongside his cocktail.

Jake Burger of Jake’s Bar and Grill and The Portobello Star and Jason Scott of Bramble came on strong with loads of witty chat and a one-two punch of classic-inspired cocktails: Jake’s Rule (or was it Rhub?) Britannia, and combination of Miller’s Westbourne Strength Gin, Campari, vintage orange bitters and a rhubarb syrup; and Jason’s Sangaree-esque Sangria, made with gin, lime, grapefruit-chamomile bitters, and a tonic of neutral grain spirits and port wine, all over crushed ice.

Ben Reed of IPBartenders took a different tack and went on the offensive – literally. After plastering the bar with images of his mug (and mugs with his mug) he made several thinly-veiled references to his genitalia, poured something resembling bull semen from an unmarked bottle, and called the whole mess of cinnamon-infused gin, distilled pineapple, cream, and possible animal husbandry by-product “Reedo’s Gin Jizz”. Nobody dared admit its deliciousness.

The crowd could barely understand Sean Muldoon’s thick Irish accent, particularly considering the ringing still left in their ears after Ben’s behind-the-bar banter with LeNell Smothers. But the head bartender of the Merchant Hotel in Belfast whipped up one of the simpler and most delicious cocktails of the afternoon, a French 71 (as in 1971, the year I was born. Thanks, Sean!), with Miller’s gin, oloroso sherry, lemon, simple syrup and champagne. Brilliantly executed and simple.

Since the United Kingdom team used up over three hours of a four-hour event, it was on the Americans to hustle through their presentations before the bar needed to open for business. So my good friend, the very talented Daniel Shoemaker from the Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon got up and breezed through his drink, the African Swallow, a combination of gin, homemade blood orange shrub, a vintage pre-recipe-change Lillet Blanc, and a dash of Chartreuse Elixir Vegetale – a combination that inspired Gary Regan to whisper the word “amazing”.

Jamie Boudreau went all retro on the crowd’s collective ass, bringing back 2007’s “Molecular Mixology” craze for his drink “Angela’s Stars”, named after the still that Martin Miller’s Gin is made in. Jamie took the complex blend of gin, pineau de charentes and creme de violette and put the whole mixture into a carbonator and pumped the drink full of sparkling bubbles. I wasn’t able to get a picture of the contraption, but the scene looked something like this:

Jamie Boudreau

Vincenzo Marianella of Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant London in Los Angeles charmed and delighted the crowd with his Italian accent and confident bartending, while his drink, “Bella Rosemary” delighted with a simple blend of gin, apricot brandy, muddled rosemary, lemon and orgeat over crushed ice.

One of my favorite New York bartenders, Giuseppe Gonzalez from Clover Club in Brooklyn (formerly of the Flatiron Lounge) broke down and reconstructed the classic sling, with his drink the Sling-Sling (or Sling Squared). Here’s how you make it: start with some gin and a dash each of aromatic and orange bitters, then throw the kitchen sink at it and add grenadine, orgeat, Cynar, Campari, maraschino liqueur, yellow Chartreuse, Lillet Blanc, Carpano Antica Formula vermouth, and soda. Ice is optional if you have room left in the glass. But despite the crazy recipe, there was a definite method to Giuseppe’s madness, and I think it came out well in the drink.

Erik Adkins of The Slanted Door in San Francisco has this magical way with citrus in cocktails that I’ve never completely understood, and I think he knows it. He built a simple Silver Fizz, with gin, organic simple syrup, fresh homegrown Bears lime juice, egg white, and tonic water garnished with a Seville orange twist. And as with every other cocktail I’ve received from Erik, it was brilliant.

In stark contrast to the many simple cocktails from the American team was Milk and Honey bartender Sam Ross’ presentation of a classic Christmas-style punch. Made with gin, muddled lemon peel, a pine and stonefruit liqueur, rich Demerara syrup, lemon juice, Regan’s Orange Bitters, champagne and absinthe, Sam’s drink was served in a crystal punchbowl with a little Christmas tree frozen into the ice base. Sam deserved extra credit for making enough to drink for the whole room, and for a brilliant presentation.

But they saved the biggest and the best for last. Legendary San Francisco bartender Thad Vogler – all seven feet of him – came in and showed the rest of the contestants how to really do it: with grace, humility, and simplicity. His combination of gin, spätlese reisling, a dash each of housemade cherry and peach bitters was easily one of the best drinks I’d tried all day.

But in the end, it was the winning combination of bartending showmanship, attention to detail, presentation and adherence to classic cocktail construction that made Mr. Sam Ross the winner of the Martin Miller’s Gin Master’s Competition.

I never got a chance to talk with Sam this weekend, but I’ve been a big fan of his drinks for quite a while. So much so, that I’ve been making some of his concoctions at the bar. And one of them has gone over so well that I received this email just today:

I simply MUST have the recipe for that drink you made me… Penicillin? I’m positively spelling it wrong, but that doesn’t discount my love for it. I can’t stop thinking about it. I may leave my husband for it. I may marry it or just have a torrid affair…me and my scotch topped wonderlove… I’m jealous of the ice that gets to swim in it’s magic… is that enough begging? Please post it soon.

Well, I’m not going to post Sam’s recipe for the Penicillin here, but maybe if he’s reading, he’ll do us the honors. Congratulations to Sam and everyone who competed, it was a pleasure to watch you all in action.

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