Espolon Cock(tail) Fights

AudienceWhat do you get when you combine the bravado of professional wrestling, a rivalry between two cities, a dozen creative bartenders, and a whole lot of tequila? The answer is something like the Espolon Tequila Cock(tail) Fights. Espolon Tequila has sponsored these events in numerous cities. This past Monday, they held their third annual bout between Birmingham and Atlanta, and we were asked to go along for the ride and to help judge the contest, which pitted six bartenders from each city against each other. Birmingham took the belt last year, but our champion Will Hamrick wasn’t able to attend this time around. The event was held at Atlanta’s Terminal West, and the home team came prepared to win back the title.

The Birmingham contingent chartered a bus to Atlanta and brought along a sizeable cheering squad of about twenty fellow bartenders. You can imagine that when you put 25-30 bartenders on a bus, things might get a little raucous.

At the event itself, audience members were allowed to purchase fake money and place bets. They could then cash in their winnings for Espolon swag. Each bartender was asked to adopt a stage personality, which you can see on the betting board below. In the first round, the participants competed head to head, with one Atlanta bartender facing off against one Birmingham bartender. Each made the Espolon cocktail recipe they had submitted to the contest.

Betting Board

Betting Board

I got in on the festivities

I got in on the festivities

Our hosts

Our hosts, Justin Noel and Michael Finn

Team Captains

Team Captains

Georgios "El Boracho Mentioso"

Georgos “El Boracho Mentioso” Ogourousis

Joey "The Undertiki" Schmidt

Joey “The Undertiki” Schmidt

Steve "The Ringmaster" Bradford

Steve “The Ringmaster” Bradford

David "the Donald" Dixon

David “the Donald” Dixon

Charles "Midnight Rooster" Freeland

Charles “Midnight Rooster” Freeland


Larry Mudd “Houston Navidad” Townley

Ryan "The Stone" Stone

Ryan “The Stone” Stone

The rest is a bit of a blur

The rest is a bit of a blur

In the second round, the six winners from round one had to make 10 cocktails and a shot in four minutes. They were judged on consistency, accuracy, speed, and technique.

The two best scores from round two faced each other in round three. This ended up being two Atlanta bartenders, David “the Donald” Dixon and Paige “Spitfire” Lane. And the winner was Atlanta’s David “the Donald” Dixon (who used to be a bartender in Birmingham).
So Atlanta ended up taking home the glory this year, but a good time was had by all. We’ll get them next year.


Deconstructing the Margarita

20150628_100341Margarita is the Spanish word for daisy. If you dig into the family tree of cocktails, you’ll find that the Margarita is the granddaughter of an older drink called the Daisy and another called a Brandy Crusta. The Daisy has undergone a lot of permutations over the years, but originally, it was similar to what we would today call a Sour: base liquor, lemon juice, simple syrup. Usually it would have soda water added, and it would be served in a large glass full of shaved or cracked ice and garnished with fresh seasonal fruit and mint. The Brandy Crusta was also a precursor of the Sidecar. It combined brandy, lemon juice, and sugar, and it was served in a glass with a sugar rim and a long spiral of lemon peel. When you bring in tequila as the base liquor, substitute lime for the lemon, and add salt on the rim instead of sugar, you have a Margarita.

Your basic Margarita is a sweet, tart, refreshing summer drink. The combination of lime juice, sugar, and tequila is a classic that even cocktail luddites appreciate, especially if it’s made fresh and with quality ingredients. Adding triple sec or Grand Marnier is the traditional way to bring a touch of class to the drink, and it does add both richness and sweetness, but it isn’t always necessary. Add salt on the rim, or not. Add a lime wheel as a garnish, or not. You can mess with it in a million different ways, and it’s still good.

Step 1: Selecting a tequila

First of all, you should NEVER EVER use a tequila that you wouldn’t drink on its own. ALWAYS use a tequila that is made with 100% blue agave—it should be printed clearly on the label. Don’t use Cuervo. If you like Patron, okay, but don’t put it in my Margarita. Our preference is Sauza Blue, but there are a lot of other good brands out there. Just read the label.

Traditionally, you’ll use a blanco or unaged tequila. To step it up, look for one that says reposado or anejo on the label. These are tequilas that have been barrel aged. Reposado means “rested” and indicates that the tequila has been aged for a shorter amount of time, between two months and one year. Anejo means “old” and indicates that the tequila has been aged at least a year. Extra Anejo means it has been aged at least three years. An aged tequila will be smoother and more complex because of the flavoring it gets from the barrel. Avoid “gold” tequila, as this is usually just a blanco tequila with coloring added to make it look aged.

Step 2: Selecting citrus

The citrus in a Margarita is typically lime because limes are popular in Mexican cuisine, and they naturally go well together. However, you can substitute lemon, orange, or grapefruit, or use a combination of them. As long as it’s freshly squeezed, it will be good. One caveat: because orange juice is so sweet, I would always combine it with a more tart citrus juice to offset the sweetness a little bit.

Step 3: Selecting a liqueur

What restaurants call a “top shelf” Margarita will have triple sec such as Cointreau or Grand Marnier added to the basic recipe. Try using St. Germaine (an elderflower liqueur) or Damiana liqueur (if you can find it) to add flowery herbal notes. For a spicy variation, use Domain de Canton (ginger liqueur). Chartreuse can also be used to good effect. Most of these can be a sub for the triple sec or can be added to the triple sec. It’s a matter of how sweet you want your drink to be. We’ve also had good luck using Cathead Honeysuckle vodka.

Step 4: Selecting a syrup

There are literally thousands of specialty syrups you can buy or make at home. We’ve done black peppercorn syrup, hot pepper syrup, cardamom syrup, and lots of others. You can infuse simple syrup with just about any kind of herb, spice, or seasonal fruit. Or don’t use any syrup and pick a second liqueur from the section above.

Step 5: Selecting your salt

Not everybody like the salt on the rim of a Margarita, but it you do, this is another area where you can play around. Experiment with combining salt with ground herbs or spices. If you like a spicy Margarita, you can add a little cayenne to your salt mixture. Many grocery stores have specialty salts that have already been infused with different flavors. Some favorites we found in the past were rosemary salt and hickory smoked salt. For an interesting variation, instead of doing a salt rim, just add a small pinch of salt to the drink itself.

Step 6: Selecting your garnish

Take some inspiration from the Margarita’s ancestor the Daisy and add some fresh seasonal fruit or herbs. In the spring and summer, we especially like to pull herbs from our backyard herb garden and use them to spruce up a cocktail. Sage, mint, or rosemary can work well in a Margarita and looks pretty in a glass, especially for guests. Before garnishing with an herb, clap the herbs between your hands to help bring out the oils and aromas. “Spanking” the herbs like this is essential for getting the most out of them.

A lot of these tricks would apply to cocktails other than a Margarita, of course, especially similar citrus-based drinks like Gimlets and Daiquiris. Use something from each section and make your Margarita something truly special.

The Whiskey Thief: A Serialized Novel, Part 4

Sweating and sore from a hungover three-mile hike across town in the summer heat, Stone pulled a heap of papers from his mailbox and deposited them directly in the lobby garbage can. The elevator smelled like urine again. He heard Captain Fancypants mewing from hunger as soon as he got off on the tenth floor. As he prepared a bowl of feed for the Captain, he checked his cell and saw that he had missed a call. The message was from Feizal Valli, the bar manager at Collins, but there was no substance to it except to call him back. Could be related to the murder that happened there the other night, Stone thought, though he couldn’t figure what he’d be able to do to help, what with Detective Gatlinburg’s fat ass on the case.

Before calling Feizal back, he showered, shaved, and put on a fresh suit. And yes, he did always wear a suit when he was working. He even wore a suit when he wasn’t working. He sometimes wore one to sleep. Private investigator work may no longer be the glamour job that it was portrayed to be in old movies: the ambient saxophone music, trench coats, fedoras, sets of long legs that you could touch but never trust, mysteries that led to other mysteries, knocking bad guys out in one punch, falling in love with a pretty face that wants nothing more than to shoot you in the head. That was all a neat fantasy. But Stone still insisted on having a touch of class at his agency, even if he spent most of his time skiptracing, taking pictures of cheating husbands, and hacking into someone’s email or Facebook profile.

He’d been in this apartment for a little over two years, ever since he moved back to Birmingham from a brief stint in New York City, where he’d failed at love and at being an artist. It was a functional but depressing studio with a small kitchen and one large closet that he’d filled with suits he started collecting from thrift stores and estate sales when he started his business. The fridge held little except some beer, peanut butter, some vermouth, and assorted bitters. He kept no furniture except a bed and a small dresser. There was a wooden TV table from Target that he used as a night stand and another on which he kept a laptop. There was one window overlooking Rushton Park. Fortunately for him, it didn’t open wide enough for him to defenestrate himself.

The Captain had a scratching post in one corner, a litter box in the opposite corner, and a food and water bowl by the kitchen. The building itself was a utilitarian 1950s high rise that seemed to specialize in housing students who couldn’t afford a place closer to campus, divorcees in the process of rebuilding their lives, and retirees who were two steps away from moving into the nursing home conveniently located two doors down. In other words, people in transition, and he’d been in transition for as long as he could remember. There was an O’Henry’s Coffee downstairs, and also a restaurant, Rojo, which served a pretty good Bloody Mary and a better margarita, and he was thinking, since it was a little bit after noon now, it might be just about time for one of those margaritas.

The weekday lunch crowd was just starting to filter in, nobody he recognized except the familiar restaurant staff. Berkley didn’t usually work the day shift, but Stone was glad to see him there. The size of a linebacker and covered from the neck down in tattoos, Berkley seemed more like a bouncer than a bartender. He had served as both in some of the less reputable establishments of his past employment. He arrived in town an indeterminate time ago and quickly became a recognizable face at punk and metal shows and any bars that stayed open after hours, often behind the bar. It seemed at times as if he somehow worked at every dive bar in town simultaneously. But this was no dive, and it was daylight out, so Stone asked Berkely what he was doing there.

“Filling in for somebody. Still living upstairs?”

“Rent’s still cheap as ever. Get me a margarita and an order of your namesake tacos.” Berkely’s Tacos were a spicy combo of chicken, wing sauce, tomatoes, cilantro, and feta—a perfect foil for the sweet, sour, and salty Margarita that was on its way to him.

While he mixed the margarita, Berkley asked him if he’d heard what happened, and he didn’t have to be any more specific. It appeared everyone had heard by now about the murdered English professor, and everyone was eager to spread gossip about it too. “Isn’t any of my business, but the girl they say did it… I’ve seen her and the professor together…. A couple of weeks ago I was working at the Nick. They were having an argument about something, and she ended up leaving in a huff. I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop or anything, but they kept mentioning a place called Lyonnesse. Mean anything to you? I remember it ‘cause I thought it was odd.”

“Nope, and it’s none of my business.”

“Just wanted to get it off my chest.”

“Talk to the cops?”

“I’m not too interested in talking to them.”

“Christ on a caterpillar. I just remembered something.” He hadn’t called Feizal back yet. He took his margarita outside to the patio, which was already filling up fast since it was a beautiful, clear June day. A cool breeze wafted under the canopy and filled the air with the scent of honeysuckle. There was no answer from Feizal, so he sat down and enjoyed his drink at a shady table in the corner to wait for his tacos, which arrived promptly.

A muscular gentleman broad as a truck—also by himself—sat at a nearby table with a glass of tea. His black hair was bisected by a severe part that stretched down into a greasy looking ponytail, and his small dark eyes seemed to wander in Stone’s direction a little too often. He wore a tight black t-shirt and a thick gold chain like he’d just come from a casting call for thug #2.

To keep himself from staring back, Stone studied the flyer for the poetry reading he’d put in his wallet earlier and pretended to make some notes on it. He wrote the word “Lyonnesse” down. There was a little town by that name in Pickens County, near the Mississippi border. The poetry reading was happening later that night, so he’d have to figure out a way to keep himself occupied for a few hours. He finished his food and had started to make his way back upstairs through the building’s garage when someone came up from behind him and knocked the lights out.

Read Part 5

The Nitty Gritty Cocktail for May

HerbGardenGimletSince the beginning of this year, the Whiskey Thief has served as the official bartender for the Nitty Gritty Magic City Reading Series, which features a variety of writers both local and from elsewhere on the second Thursday of each month. At each reading, we feature a signature craft cocktail. We’ve been woefully neglectful about pimping both the reading series and the cocktails we’ve been creating for it, but we’re going to correct that now.

This month, we’re doing something a little different. We’re putting together a springy herbal mixture of 2 parts lime juice to 1 part each of Green Chartreuse and St. Germaine. Call it a spring sour mix.

For the cocktail, patrons can choose a base liquor to pair with the mix:

  • Gin for a gimlet
  • Vodka for a bastardized gimlet
  • Honeysuckle Vodka for a sweeter bastardized gimlet
  • Tequila for a margarita
  • Rum for a daiquiri

We’re pulling fresh herbs from the whiskey garden to use as a garnish.

The NGMC readers featured this month are all from Nashville:

TJ Jarrett is a writer and software developer in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, African American Review, Boston Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, DIAGRAM, Third Coast, VQR, West Branch and others.

Christina Stoddard is the author of HIVE, which won the 2015 Brittingham Prize in Poetry (University of Wisconsin Press). Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Christina earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she was the Fred Chappell Fellow. She is an Associate Editor at Tupelo Quarterly and a Contributing Editor at Cave Wall. Christina currently lives in Nashville, TN where she is the Managing Editor of a scholarly journal in economics and decision theory. Visit her online at and on Twitter at @belles_lettres.

Edgar Kunz lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he teaches at Vanderbilt University. His work appears or is forthcoming in AGNI, The Missouri Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Forklift Ohio, Devil’s Lake, and other places. He’s moving to San Francisco in the fall to begin a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.

Black Peppercorn Cocktails

We made a large vat of black peppercorn syrup for our Bengal Tiger a couple of weeks ago, and we still have leftovers. A quick reminder on how to make the syrup:

Mix 1 cup of sugar, 1 cup of water, and 1 tablespoon of black peppercorns in a saucepan. Stir over medium heat until all the sugar dissolves. Turn the heat to low and let it simmer another 5-10 minutes, and then take it off the heat. When the mixture cools, strain out the peppercorns using cheesecloth or a mesh strainer and then bottle.

This syrup makes a wonderful spicy addition to almost any cocktail that would normally include regular simple syrup. We started with the most basic cocktail of them all, the Old Fashioned.

Black Pepper Old FashionedBlack Pepper Old Fashioned

  • 2 ounces of your favorite bourbon or rye
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup
  • 2 dashes of Angostura bitters

Build in a rocks glass and fill with ice.

This syrup is especially delicious  if there is also citrus involved. Some things we tried:

Black Pepper Daiquiri

  • 2 ounces white rum
  • 1 ounce fresh pressed lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

Black Pepper Gimlet

  • 2 ounces dry gin
  • 1 ounce fresh pressed lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

Black Pepper Margarita

  • 2 ounces blue agave tequila
  • 1 ounce fresh pressed lime juice
  • 1/2 ounce Grand Marnier
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass.

You can see how versatile this is. Try subbing lemon or lime in any of these drinks. Throw in a splash of fresh grapefruit or orange juice if you have it handy.

Secrets of EveFor our final black pepper trick, may we introduce “Secrets of Eve.” Whiskey Girl and I happen to have a fig tree in our back yard, so it’s a virtual fig-topia around here. We’ve made a lot of cool things with the figs, including entrees, desserts, and drinks. But the majority of the stock has gone into fig preserves, which we make with sugar, lemon, and fresh ginger.

We were snacking on our first jar of fig preserves and quickly came to the end, but there was still a lot of delicious reserve liquid remaining in the jar. What do you suppose we did with that?

Secrets of Eve

  • 2 ounces dry gin
  • 1 ounce fig preserve juice
  • 1/2 ounce black peppercorn syrup

Shake with ice and pour into a large rocks glass. Garnish with a fresh sprig of rosemary.


Rosemary Cocktails

We made some rosemary syrup for some experiment that we neglected to document. The syrup itself is simple enough to make. Add a few sprigs of fresh rosemary to the pot while making regular simple syrup (1 part sugar to 1 part water) and then strain the rosemary out before jarring. Any sort of herbal syrup, like mint syrup for juleps, would be made the same way and can add a spring to the step of an otherwise ordinary cocktail.

Anyway, it’s been in the fridge for a couple of weeks, and since we don’t know how long it will last, we decided to try and use some of it tonight on a few new experiments. For the first one, we tried a sweet spin on the classic Complement Cocktail, which normally uses akvavit, a Scandinavian liquor that is similar to gin but uses fennel for flavoring instead of juniper. Since you can’t get akvavit in Alabama, we made a a fennel tincture by letting some fennel sit in a jar of vodka for a couple of weeks. We keep the tincture in a dropper  bottle because a little goes a long way.

Rosemary ClooneyThe Rosemary Clooney

  • 2 oz London dry gin
  • 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
  • 1/2 oz St. Germain
  • juice of half a lemon
  • 6 drops of fennel tincture

For our second drink of the night, we chose to use tequila and Armagnac, two ingredients that don’t usually get a lot of love in cocktails. We added a splash of Campari to brighten things up.

The Song of the Forest People

  • 2 oz reposado tequila
  • 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
  • 1/2 oz vsop Armagnac
  • splash of Campari
  • 2 dashes orange bitters

Finally, we decided to try the rosemary syrup with a bourbon cocktail. We happened to have a jar of bourbon infused with mustard seed, which we were inspired to make after having a cocktail with mustard seed apple brandy at Food Bar one night. It seemed like it would go well with the rosemary. The dry sherry and Luxardo helped to round it out.

The Spring Chicken

  • 2 0z mustard seed-infused bourbon
  • 1/2 oz rosemary syrup
  • 1/2 oz dry sherry
  • 1/2 oz Luxardo marischino liqueur