Shake what ya momma gave you; the city's best bartenders face off at The Hawthorne

Sam Treadway of Backbar in action

Full disclosure, my idea of a quick cocktail is either a) cracking open a bottle of beer, which is not a cocktail, or b) taking a shot, which is also not a cocktail. Give me a little more time, maybe put on some relaxing, lounge-y music, leave the room, and I can definitely whip something up for you. Maybe.

I think it's fair to say I would have been out of my depth behind the bar at Monday night's American Idol/Iron Chef Cocktail Competition at The Hawthorne. And--because I know some of you read that last sentence and thought, American Idol?-- no, the bartenders did not need to sing while they slammed together artful combinations of spirits in shakers, and the goateed Kevin Brauch, thankfully, was not there.

What there was: a crowd of half craft cocktail geek--half Boston University alumni and well-to-dos (this whole shindig happened to double as a benefit for the BU School of Hospitality Administration), six young bartenders who are kicking the industry's ass with their talent, and Jackson Cannon, Mr. Cocktail himself and mastermind behind The Hawthorne.

>>VIEW: Photos of the competition<<

When we arrive, Cannon is darting around the room, settling the judges, checking the bar, disappearing into the kitchen, shaking hands with guests. I ask him if he's the Chairman in this whole set-up, or more of an Alton Brown, and he laughs before he says, "Oh, both. I feel like I'm all of them at this moment," grins, then dashes off again to start the proceedings.

I popped a mini grilled cheese into my mouth and squeezed in at the marble bar with the most eager of the attendees. First up, the young guns of the city's watering holes: Drink alum Bryn Tatten of backbar, Joe Cammarata of Drink, and Seth Freidus of Eastern Standard. Their mystery ingredient, revealed seconds before they sprung into action, wound up being blueberries. Deceptively simple, I thought, as I watched handfuls of the berries being muddled in front of me.

After what seemed like 15 seconds, but was probably closer to five minutes, the drinks were brought up to the judging panel (a self-described Simon, Paula and Randy of mixology), comprised of one of the world's leading tenders of the bar, Salvatore Calabrese, leading hospitality man about town Robert Earl, and radio personality Lauren Beckham Falcone.

Well, hot damn. These judges were not the sort of fluffy, everybody wins judges I'm not ashamed to admit I was expecting. The bartenders were thoughtfully called out on everything from choice of glass to portion size, and after a quick deliberation, Tatten--who presented a variation on a blueberry smash--was deemed the winner.

Next up, three slightly more seasoned gentlemen, Sam Treadway of backbar, United States Bartender's Guild Boston chapter president Corey Bunnewith, and Ryan Lotz of The Hawthorne, took their places. Cannon's voice boomed over the sound system.

"The mystery!"

Now we're talking.

At this point, I became a little mesmerized by the movement behind the bar and glazed out for a second. These three moved quicker, with a dash more confidence and swagger. And, I feel safe saying this, I don't think anyone can say they don't love watching an experienced bartender with a cocktail shaker. Amiright? I can't help but keep my eyes glued to it, minorly terrified that they'll drop it, or send it flying through the back bar.

Here's where I tuned back in, and noticed a couple I had met minutes earlier beckoning me back to center bar. Treadway had plunked down a tester in front of them for notes and left the drink for them to finish.

>>VIEW: Photos from the competition<<

"Taste this," they told me, and pushed the glass into my hands. I knew there was beer involved, but what I tasted was an explosion of cinnamon and ginger, a hint of carbonation--that had to be the beer--and a deep, sexy, smokiness. My jaw dropped.

That cocktail ended up winning, although the judges had confessed all three drinks were spectacular. This meant a backbar finale, pitting bar manager Treadway up against his co-worker, head bartender Tatten, for the final round.

Bryn Tatten of backbar during the final round

By now, the crowd was loving it, and as squeeze bottles of balsamic emerged from the back room, a murmured "Oooh," rose up around me.

Wouldn't you know it, the student became the master in the end, as Tatten's cocktail was chosen as the competition's final winner.

Afterwards, as cameras flashed and the bartenders mingled, Cannon stood to the side, surveying the crowd.

"You know," he says, "I'm not a fan of a super competitive environment behind the bar, but I really loved seeing all the bartenders just having a great time. Did you see Sam trying to help out Bryn at the end? That was so cool to see."

And what would have Cannon have done with the tricky balsamic?

"I think I would have used watermelon if it had been in season," he says after thinking for a moment. "But since it isn't, I would have definitely used those strawberries that were up there. I think that would have come out nice."

I find myself nodding, and immediately start imagining myself muddling strawberries into a red mush, gleefully splashing balsamic over it, working a cocktail shaker and not dropping it, jazzy music playing in the background. We'll get there eventually.


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