"5," Ryan Puckett, of the Libertine Liquor Bar on Mass Ave. is pouring his last cocktail. "4," he grabs a metal straw and drops it in the glass. "3," he places his final cup, an antique metallic cup on a napkin next to his scorpion bowl. "2," he pulls his hands away. "1, time is up." "Puck" has just finished his go at the Cocktails Against the Clock round of the United States Bartenders' Guild Diageo World Class Midwest Regionals. He finished just in time, to my eye his drink crafting was impeccable and the drinks sound, and look, like they taste incredible (sadly only the judges get a taste). The event took place today and it was exciting to see so much talent.
"This is not a cocktail competition, it's a bartending competition," says Charles Joly, one of the many judges of the competition, founder of Crafthouse Cocktails, and the first American to ever win the event, naming him World's Best Bartender."There is a big distinction, here, you're not judged by the liquid in the glass. You don't go to a bar just to get a drink, it is an experience from beginning to end and this competition tests all of those skills ... It is the largest, most prestigious, and most indicative competition of what we do in our field."
Indianapolis had five unquestionably talented bartenders who showed up at the Alexander and worked their asses off. I've said it before and I'll say it again, we are lucky to have bartenders like Devon Boyll, Michael Toscano, Brian Brissart, Ryan Puckett, and Josh Gonzales in this city. Out of the five Hoosier's, out of the fifteen competitors from around the Midwest, only one Indy bartender meets the judges high standards to qualify for the World Class Nationals in D.C. in June.
Josh Gonzales, owner and bartender at Thunderbird in Fountain Square, is in the hospitality room. I'm chatting with him about his recent trip to Baltimore and he seems calm and cool. He is up next in the Cocktails Against the Clock, he is getting his box of materials ready to go.
As he makes his way behind the bar in Plat 99, you can tell his calm facade is slipping. His hands are a bit shaky as he preps his station with jiggers, cocktail spoons, fresh herbs, bitters, and his necessary liquors. I've spoken with Josh many times before and he has always seemed sure of his self and confident, but here, in front of these three judges you can tell he's nervous.
Despite his nerves, he deftly handles crafting his four cocktails while he chats easily with the judges. You can see he is in his element when pouring the finished products out of the shakers. He finishes with nearly fifty seconds remaining on the clock, and jests with the time keeper about wanting to hear them do the ten second countdown.
I knew in that moment, without tasting his drinks, or seeing him compete in the other two tasks, I knew he was going to be in the final three. His quiet and easy demeanor was impressive and I've had enough of his creations at Thunderbird and Rook to know he can create a damn good cocktail.
As I'm standing in a room in the Alexander, filled to the brim with people that can craft a better cocktail in minutes than I could in a lifetime (I was a bartender at one point in time), I can't imagine being the judges. How do you look at the talent in this room and decide who is better or worse? Who deserves to move on and who doesn't? It's impossible. When I ask Joly how they decide, he says, "It's like looking at a bartender at your neighborhood corner bar. I would much rather be in a dive bar with a friendly bartender, a good juke box, stale beer, and old whiskey than some place that is uptight and simply makes a great cocktails. You know, knowing the craft, knowing your classics and being innovative is important, but more importantly being personable, being a host, and hospitality. That's the key."
I can say without a doubt, every Indy bartender that competed today is all of these things and more, and I know they're all just happy to be paving the path for Indianapolis' bartending scene.
A huge congratulations to Josh Gonzales, be on the lookout for more coverage when he makes his way to the World Class Nationals June 20-23. A big congrats to the other two regional winners, Giancarlo Aversa (Ypsilanti, MI) and Egor Polonskiy (Chicago, IL). And congrats to all of Indy's competitors!
Now get out there and drink a cocktail.