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Made with Love: Black walnut bitters and dark chocolate at Montreal's annual cocktail competition

Posted by Amie / December 21, 2012

Made-with-love cocktail competition montrealPut 16 of Montreal's top mixologists in a room along with a DJ and 750 thirsty patrons, shake and strain, and you've got yourself a recipe for one hell of a party.

The 3rd annual Made With Love mixology competition took place this past Monday night at Marché Bonsecours. This is not flash bartending with bottles flying everywhere, or Sex on the Beach at Peel Pub. Instead, it's about quality liquor, homemade syrups and bitters, freshly pressed juices, pineapple foams, apple cider semifreddos, smoked salmon, and local maple syrup.

What started in Montreal in 2010 has grown into a Canada-wide and multinational event, but this year's Made With Love organizers did their best to make their home city proud. Ticket holders descended into the dark lower level of the Marché Bonsecours and walked from station to station sampling boozy concoctions. At each, a bartender presented his restaurant or bar's offering. Competitors hailed from the city's cocktail crème de la crème: Le Bremner, Absolut Bartending, M:BRGR, Le Jockey, Burgundy Lion, Le Lab, Café Sardine, L'Orignal, Kronik Bar Services, Santos, Barroco, Philemon, Maison Boulud, Sim's Irish Pub, Bartender One et Ateliers et Saveurs.

How it Worked

Each of the competitors took place in a preliminary event, and the results determined the order in which each could choose the alcohol they wanted to use. The top few got their first choices and the others ranked their top three preferences and crossed their fingers. The alcohols available included Appleton's rum, Hennessey Cognac, Hendrick's gin, Skyy vodka, Hornito's tequila, Campari, Maker's Mark bourbon and Canadian Club whiskey. They come up with something delicious, name it, and make more than a thousand of them over the course of the night. Most did it with a team of assistants from their bars/restaurants, but some did it alone. There were also past winners from the Halifax competition present, and they didn't fly up their teams or their kitchens, making it tougher to make fresh juices, purées and other freshly prepared ingredients. They were there to represent, not to compete, though.

The Competition

Every ticket holder got a dog tag that they wore for the event. After tasting all the cocktails (each cocktail was 1/3 of the size of a standard cocktail, but with 16 cocktails to taste and the opportunity to return for seconds, you really had to pace yourself) each gave the tag to the mixologist of his or her choice. The cocktail maker with the most tags at the end of the night won the People's Choice award. According to mixologist Graham Warner of Montreal's Café Sardine, "It's always a great feeling when someone you don't know comes up to you near the end to put their Dog Tag around your neck; that out of all the drinks, this random civilian judged mine the best. That means something to me."

A special jury also tasted all the creations, listened to the presentations of the mixologists, and then chose their own winner based on originality, presentation and taste. Both the people's choice and jury winner go on to the next Made With Love competition in Mexico in February. Like the Halifax reps at the Montreal event, they won't compete, but a trip to sunny Mexico in the middle of a frigid Montreal February is a solid prize.

And the Winners are...

Judge's Choice:
Simon Charette from Sim's Irish Pub in Rawdon. The out-of-towner's "Sweet Whisky Salmon" with Canadian Club whisky, medium maple syrup, 35% cream, smoked salmon and maple sugar had the most buzz of the night. Sweet, salty and savoury, it hit all the right notes in an overly sugary competition.

People's Choice: Jane Ross-Opazo from L'Orignal, with her "Passe-Partout" made from Maker's Mark bourbon, black prune, cinnamon syrup, lime and black walnut bitters, and served in a 125mL mason jar. It's something you'd want a large supply of in your pantry too.

Black walnut bitters also appeared in Maison Boulud's mixmistress, Sidonie Rodman's "I am Made of Love" with blackberries, balsamic vinegar and shaved 70% dark chocolate. The addictively bitter smell of the chocolate prefaced and contrasted her sweet vermouth and Campari-based cocktail. Named "I Am Made of Love", it's not in honour of the Italian film with a similar name. Instead, Rodman said she wanted to hear people tell her they were "made of love."

Should Have Been Awards:

Most Original Cocktail & Presentation
: Cafe Sardine's Graham Warner got out from behind his bar and actually talked to people about his organic, Quebec egg white semifreddo with tangy apple cider vinegar floating in a smoky tequila, honey and smoked tea combo. To be fair, he had 3 competent bartenders behind the bar to help him out, but the one-on-one, charming and bilingual service that he's known for at Sardine (and formerly at Barroco) was in full force. When I asked Maxime Boivin from Barroco how he felt about competing against his former co-worker, he smiled and said that Montreal's cocktail world is small and friendly. Warner seconded that, saying, "The whole weekend has the feeling of a family reunion, just more dysfunctional. The event is a blast, but the pre-parties are something else, and the after parties too. Many of us have spent over a month preparing. If it looked like we were having a good time, it's because we were. There really wasn't a whole lot of work done on my part that evening. After doing the lion's share of the serving, Jaaron, Brad, and David wouldn't stop going on about how much fun they'd had. I just kept my mouth shut and hoped they wouldn't notice the imbalance." The competition was definitely more of a party than a cut-throat battle. The crowd grew, the music went up, the lights went down, and the cocktails kept coming.

Best Use of a Dehydrator/Classiest Cocktail: Andrew Whibley of Le Bremner made a rim of salt, lime zest and campari by dehydrating the three into the perfect rim garnish. The drink with Hendrick's gin tasted like cucumber, though the only cucumber was the slice twirled on a stir stick for garnish. The clean gin needed that salt, lime and sweet campari to give it a good kick. It was definitely one of the most balanced cocktails of the night, and my winner for class.

Best Classic cocktail
: Halifax represented with a stellar version of a negroni. It takes balls to do a classic cocktail at a cocktail event, when all the other competitors and cocktail connoisseurs will know if it's not perfect. But when you can't bring your kitchen and supplies with you from Halifax, your options are limited. So the classic negroni from one of the Halifax invitees deserves a giant nod of recognition and respect for a job well done.
Best Sweet Treat: Chris Natale's "Paparazzi Burst" with rum, pomegranate liqueur, homemade pomegranate syrup, bitters, and fresh pomegranate seeds with grated cinnamon served in a piece of lemon rind. You take a "shot" of the seeds and cinnamon from the zest, then sip the cinnamon-topped drink. The Pama pomegranate liqueur is way too drinkable. It's like the pomegranate version of Disaronno - so smooth and sweet. But the hit of cinnamon before the first sip really pushed the drink up a notch, and out of the "100% girly cocktail" category.

Best Arcade Game Cocktail:
It was fun to see a bartender pour all the alcohol down a kind of waterpark slide made of ice that zigzaged down a vertical wall. You put your glass at the end and all the types of alcohol combined. But he needed to make every drink one by one, turning it into a very inefficient cocktail operation. So it's definitely a cocktail for a patient bartender and patient drinkers who love gumball machines or hate cocktail shakers - the "stirred, not shaken" types.

See you next year, Made With Love.



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