On Sunday, Table 20 hosted its second annual L.A.'s Best Bartender contest at Elevate Lounge in Downtown Los Angeles. Five of L.A.'s top bartenders arrived to compete for the title of L.A.'s Best Bartender before six distinguished judges and over two-hundred spectators.
While the spectators downed pre-batched cocktails featuring vodka from the event's corporate sponsor, Karlsson's Gold, the judges sampled six hand-mixed cocktails from each contestant. Judges scored each bartender according to presentation, quickness, cleanliness, creativity, and craftsmanship. And in the end, The Tasting Kitchen's Justin Pike came away with top honors: an all-expense-paid trip to one of three major cocktail events, and a billboard (a billboard!) announcing him L.A.'s Best Bartender.
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The problem with the competition, from the spectators' perspective, was that the drinks we sampled were not the drinks the judges sampled. A pre-batched, mass-produced, hastily poured drink (with lousy ice!) will never stand up to a fresh, meticulously mixed, carefully poured cocktail, even if both are based on the same recipe. So while Pike won first place at the judges' table, the cocktail he concocted for the spectators, Su Novia -- a mix of Karlsson's Gold vodka, fresh lime juice, St. Germain, ginger syrup, club soda, and cucumber garnish -- was the blandest of the bunch.
Still, it was gratifying to watch a few masters at work. Among the judges were: Dale DeGroff, the only bartender to ever win a James Beard award; Matthew Biancaniello, winner of last year's L.A.'s Best Bartender award; Johnny Iuzzini, star of Top Chef Just Desserts; Bricia Lopez, whose family owns Guelaguetza; Los Angeles Times staff writer Jessica Gelt; and Marcos Tello, president of the local chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild. And let's not forget Dan Dunn, the event's MC, and one of L.A.'s most accomplished -- and irreverent -- cocktail writers.
And even if we spectators didn't get to imbibe the good stuff, we did get to see five of L.A.'s best bartenders ply their craft. Finishing below Pike were Joe Brooke of Next Door Lounge, Devon Tarby of The Varnish, Brian Summers of Harvard & Stone, and Daniel Zacharczuk of Bar | Kitchen.
Look for Pike's billboard looming high above Wilshire & Sweetzer on October 24.