By Alex Kirles, 2017 Angostura National Champion
I arrived in Chicago the day before the competition and took the train into the city. Checked into my hotel and was told there was a rooftop / terrace bar. Done. Headed up that way and had an Amaro to sip on. It was a beautiful space and something that I really needed to help calm the nerves that were starting to set in. I went back to my room and spent the next few hours before dinner finalizing my notes and talking points. I received a text from Stephen Meagher who works for GMR Marketing and handled all of our hotel / flight booking, BOH coordination, reservations, etc. to head back up to the rooftop for drinks before dinner. That’s where I met Dave Delaney, former US Winner of the Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge, Stephen, and the other 2 finalists Catherine Hood, and Glendon Hartly.
We went out for dinner with the Angostura team and drew our slots. Glendon drew first, Catherine second, and I was slated last. I had mixed emotions about going last. There were only 3 of us so it wasn’t like most competitions where you wanna go in the middle / end. I knew that since I was going last I had to put on a show-stopper performance, and in the sage-advice I’ve received from so many other bartenders “don’t mess up”.
The day had finally come. I woke up, as I have with every competition, at 6am well before my scheduled wake-up call. I go immediately to my laptop and start pouring over my notes and begin rehearsing my presentation. First, I just sit and read it out loud over and over until the words start to sound more natural and comfortable. The passion for Angostura is there but I have to make sure I remember what I want to say. After an hour or so goes by, 7am, I start to walk around and recite the presentation by heart while injecting some enthusiasm into what I’m saying. This goes on for the next 4 and a half hours until I’m supposed to meet up with the other contestants and a few other Angostura reps including former Global Winner Dave Delaney for lunch.
As we all sit down to order I can tell that tensions are running high. We’re about 7 hours until the first competitor, Glendon, is scheduled to perform. We all make small talk and go over last minute advice from Dave. The one thing I remember from that lunch was this key piece of advice from Dave “Don’t forget the bitters”. He said it happens more often than you think, and it’s happened at the global finals a number of times. Great.
Now that Dave had scared the shit out of me, it was time to walk to the venue. The space was at Morgan on Fulton at the end of the block of where we were staying. The brand new Ace Hotel in the Fulton Market District. We walk through the space and are told that this is the time to make any specialty syrups we need. “Great, no problem. Where’s the scale?” There was no scale. It’s an event space, not a stocked kitchen, Alex. Cut to Glendon and I walking around Chicago going to Whole Foods, GNC, Rite Aid, etc. with no luck. I also asked a few restaurants if I could borrow a scale and was also turned away saying they were being used currently. Finally, a nearby restaurant to venue let me borrow the scale and I rushed back to make my syrup. I finish what little prep I had and began to go over my notes yet again. This time, I would recite it then double check to make sure I’m hitting all the points I want to. The runs are becoming more polished and I’m starting to feel the passion I have for Angostura come forth when I’m talking. I spent who knows how much time delving into the story of Angostura and what makes them who they are and found a story that inspired me and made me want to be apart of the company that is so essential to this industry.
We all sit down for our interviews with the production team that will air should we advance to the global finals. And I remember one question in particular “What’s on the line today?” “Angostura”. The chance to represent the brand that has been such an integral part of this industry.
A few hours go by and it’s finally the moment we’ve been waiting for. It’s time.
Staring us down on the judge’s chair was Paul McGee (Owner of Lost Lake, among other bars), Kevin Beary (Beverage Director at 3 Dots and a Dash), and Neal Ramdhan (Last years Angostura Global Cocktail Challenge Champion). Glendon goes first and in a flash it’s over. 7 minutes seems like an eternity but is over in the blink of an eye. Catherine went next and the same thing happened. Done in a flash and now it was my turn. I set up my bar and went over my last minute checkpoints. Daniyel Jones introduces me and brings up that Yani from the Sugar House has already won this competition so I have big shoes to fill. Thanks. My 7 minutes started and I begin. A full 1 and a half minutes go by and I haven’t even touched a bottle. But I felt confident, comfortable, and excited about what I was doing. There was never a moment of worry, concern, nervousness that came over me. I smiled, laughed, I was enjoying what I was doing. And just like that, my 7 minutes were up with some time to spare. My final remark was for everyone to raise a glass and Marvel at the House of Angostura and the scope of their success.
We all anxiously await to hear who the winner was, awkwards drinking either rum or soda and bitters. They finally call us back into the room and have us stand behind the bar. They announce the winner “Alex...Kirles”. I honestly didn’t believe it at first. I still kind of don’t. It was a great experience and I was so ecstatic I could bring home this win for Sugar House (again) and Detroit. Some interviews followed, followed by celebratory drinks, packing my luggage so I could be ready to go in the morning. And just like that it was all over. I flew home the next day and went back to work. Now I wait until February comes and I compete against 50 some bartenders from around the world in the Global Finals in Trinidad. Hopefully, I can bring home another win for Detroit.
2oz Angostura 1919
.375oz Pedro Ximinez Sherry
.375oz Blackstrap Molasses Syrup
5 Dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Thrown and garnished with a long orange peel
Top with the .75oz cava
2oz Amaro di Angostura
.5oz Ginger Syrup
.5oz Fresh Lemon Juice
5 Dashes Angostura Aromatic Bitters
Shaken on crushed ice and frappe into a double rocks glass
Garnished with Angostura Aromatic Bitters Powder and torched...