The On-The-Fly Competition

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It’s six o’clock at night in New Orleans and I’m sweating, hard. Not because of the heat outside, but because I’m inside, on a stage with a microphone in my hand. Eight of the best bartenders in the country are lined up behind me, hundreds of people are seated in front of me, and everyone in the room is staring at me. And at this moment all I can think about is my near-debilitating case of stagefright and how much I hate speaking in public. So I pause for a second and think to myself:

How in the hell did I end up here?

To answer that, we have to go back a year, to the previous gathering of bartenders, cocktail aficionados, bon vivants and drunkards known as Tales of the Cocktail. One similarly steamy night in July of 2008, after a long night of trash-talking with friends Daniel Shoemaker and Erik Adkins, we decided it would be a fine idea to have an impromptu three-man cocktail contest using only the ingredients found in my swag bag. So we grabbed a few friends, headed up to the pool, spread out a mind-numbing array of airplane bottles, syrups, sauces, candies and even (seriously) candles and proceeded to see who could make the best cocktail using only those ingredients (read more and even watch a video of the contest here.)

Anyway. It was fun, and dumb, and none of us thought much of it ten minutes after we declared Daniel the winner. But word spread, and our little throwdown became a sort of celebrated thing underground. Even David Wondrich grabbed my by the arm on the last night and said, “Hey, Morgenthaler, if you do that swag bag thing again next year, I want in.”

So, fast-forward four or so months – when I’m really not thinking about that night – to a cocktail party… in New Jersey of all places. It was there that I bumped into Ann Tuennerman, founder of Tales of the Cocktail. Ann pulled me aside and propositioned me about making the Swag Bag Competition a real sanctioned event at Tales this year. “Sounds good”, I said, and we put together a conference call to hammer out the details.

It was during this conference call that I was introduced to the folks at Grand Marnier/Navan and we all chatted about the event. Now, I’m generally pretty clueless, but I must have sounded like a real rube when I exclaimed, “Wait, let me get this straight – you want that thing I did on the roof last year to be the official Grand Marnier cocktail contest?!”

“Yes, you idiot”, must have been what everyone in on the conference call was thinking, but thankfully nobody spoke out loud. But what they did tell me was that they wanted me to design and host the whole thing: I was now in charge of picking the contestants, judges, setting the rules, choosing the items for the swag bags, and get up in front of the crowd and emcee the event – everything.

Well, shit. Fortunately I remembered that David Wondrich had wanted in, so I emailed him and asked him if he’d like to be a judge. But Dave wrote back and said, “I was actually hoping to compete.” Well, double-shit, now I’ve got James Beard award-winning author David Wondrich competing, and this is becoming, like, a real thing.

David Wondrich and Jeffrey Morgenthaler on stage at the On The Fly Competition

But if there’s one thing I’ve got going for me, it’s the fact that I’ve got a lot of good friends in this business. So I called up seven of them from cities around the country and asked them if they’d like to compete in my humble little Grand Marnier sponsored event. And you know what I love about my friends? Every one of them said, “Yes”.

The lovely Misty Kalkofen of Drink, Boston

And so there I was, on stage in front of Ricky Gomez, Paul Clarke, Misty Kalkofen, Neyah White, Todd Thrasher, David Wondrich, Giuseppe Gonzalez and Eric Alperin (who even went one step further for me and shaved a mohawk just for the competition).


On my cue, the eight of them opened their swag boxes and began working on a cocktail with the following disparate list of ingredients: Glenmorangie Scotch, Chopin Vodka, Don Julio Blanco Tequila, Hennessy VSOP Cognac, Tanqueray, Grand Marnier, Navan, Tabasco, Tea Forte Cocktail Infusions, Amarula Cream, Yellow Chartreuse, Alexia Chips, Freshies Bloody Mary Mix, Dirty Sue Olive Juice, Antigua & Barbuda Hot Sauce, Jalapeno, Chocolate, & Tropical Tanteo Tequilas, Kona Coffee Liqueur, Purista Natural Mojito Mix, Dum-Dum Lollipops and M&Ms

Misty Kalkofen and Jeffrey Morgenthaler take a shot of Don Julio before the contest begins.

It was – in a word – insane. Wondrich immediately began building a little makeshift still out of a cocktail shaker and some aluminum foil and distilled Navan liqueur. I thought Misty was pouring a shot for me and herself, but she was actually about to infuse the tequila with Tea Forte tea infusions (we did the shot anyway). Thrasher was working on a reduction of Navan liqueur, and the whole thing went up in flames.

Todd Thrasher ignites Navan vanilla liqueur as Eric Alperin screams in horror.

Alperin’s cheering section brought a boom box and was blasting music from inside the audience. The ladies of LUPEC Boston were standing on their seats and screaming for Misty. Our judges didn’t know what to think, I’m guessing it was the most unconventional cocktail competition they’d ever been involved in.


At one point I was asked to clear the stage of the people that had gotten up out of their chairs and were yelling at the contestants, but to no avail – the crowd had officially decided to bum-rush the show.

The whole thing lasted only an hour and a half, but it felt like it was over as soon as it began. The contestants presented their cocktails to the judges one-by-one and after much deliberation, they declared Giuseppe’s mixture of tea-infused Glenmorangie, Navan and Piña Colada mix to be the winner.


Special thanks to Brian Huff and David Shenaut for the use of the photos. Hopefully we’ll be returning next year with more.

14 Replies to “The On-The-Fly Competition”

  • Ross says:

    How did he make a still out of a cocktail shaker and aluminum foil?

  • laurat says:

    wow i didnt know all the contestants were chosen by you to compete pretty cool.
    hope you will be just as involved at totc2010.

  • Eric says:

    Yes I garnished with hair and I used onion rings crushed up to rim my glass AND I used Slippery Dick’s Barbecue Sauce…

    This had to be the most exciting event I have ever been a part of. You’re my hero Morgenthaler!

  • Brian12566 says:

    Pretty cool how a spur of the moment on a rooftop turned into a full fledged event. Cool story.

  • Hey Jeffrey, greetings from Germany!

    You absolutely look like Johnny Knoxville on that second and on that mustache picture 😀

    Great post, must have been loads of fun!


  • Brant says:

    Let’s here about the on the fly that happened the night before w/o the required Navan/Grand Marnier component. Cheers.

  • ihatecocktails – Yes, it’s true, and here are the photos to prove it:

    That’s one of our judges, Francesco LaFranconi of Southern Wine and Spirits wondering what in the hell this braid is doing wrapped around the stem of his cocktail glass.

    And that’s me and my co-host, Lorin Gaudin, wearing… uh… Eric’s hair as matching mustaches. It seemed like a good idea at the time, believe me.

  • i missed most of this but is there any truth that alperin used his recently cut hair as a garnish?

  • It was a real treat. I’m thankful for the unruly crowd (and contestants). And yes, those onion rings were damn good.

  • Neil Kopplin says:

    This seriously looks like one of the funnest cocktails competitions of ALL TIME!!! Kudos.

  • neyah says:

    Those onion strings were good.

  • jenny Adams says:

    My favorite part of this is Bridget’s expression in that photo

  • John Claude says:

    I have the same issue. Put me behind a bar in front of a crowd of people and I’m just fine, wonderful in fact. Take me out from behind that bar and put me in front of a crowd and I freeze up.

    That reduction picture is great.

  • Lauren Clark says:

    My favorite part was when 2nd-prizewinner Misty K. told the entire audience that she thought her drink tasted “like vomit,” and the other contestants began to chant, “Vomit, vomit, vomit.”

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