I stood behind the bar with my hands raised looking at the crowd of hundreds in my SoCo-soaked boots. At that moment I looked around and wondered what the fuck I was doing at Tripper’s flipping around liquor bottles on a Sunday night when most MSU students were at the library studying for midterms.
I had to think back eight weeks to answer my question.
On Thursday, three days before the first round, my manager asked me if I would be interested in making some drinks for a competition.
“Uh, maybe,” I thought. “I’m not even a bartender anymore; I haven’t been since August, so I’m not exactly confident in my drink-making abilities let alone being judged on them.”
After she told me half of the Tripper’s contestants dropped out, I needed to give her an answer by close and I had to create an original drink recipe by Sunday night, I was floored. But in my usual bite-off-more-than-I-can-chew style, I agreed and got excited about creating (and taste-testing) my new drink.
After much recipe searching, tweaking and making, I gave up and decided to make an Orange Crush Bomb – a Tripper’s signature shot – into a drink and just wing it at Old Chicago on Sunday.
“How hard could it be? I’m just making two drinks, and I know that they taste amazing; I’m going to win for sure!”
I invited my friends and coworkers to come eat some pizza and cheer for me. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and really had no idea how prepared the other bartenders were.
I thought the competition was about personality and drink taste and only a few weeks long. If I lost, oh well, at least I’d get my Sunday nights back. If I won, I’d get to tell my managers how sweet I am. This is a win-win situation, right?
Wrong! Turns out, this competition was a pretty big deal.
Banzai Energy Drink and City Pulse were sponsoring the Banzai Cocktail Wars with a grand prize trip to Las Vegas. The Cocktail Wars pinned 48 contestants from 12 Lansing bars against each other in an eight-week long final four bracket style competition complete with a Blind Pig losers bracket.
Yeah, this was definitely more than just making a drink.
Sarah explained the judging rules to all of us: 20 points for audience voting, 30 points for flair and 50 points for drink taste.
So people had flair? And this flair is?
I found out that Inky, my competition, had plenty of flair. This flair included blue martini glasses, special garnishes, blue rock sugar and, oh yeah, a freaking blowtorch! My Flair? Oh, just a bit of smiling and red sprinkles. I was doomed.
She had two full sleeve tattoos, a cut off camouflage tank top and a cheering section that took up half of the bar. Me and my eight cheering girlfriends didn’t stand a chance.
I put on my happy face and made my drink anyway. I lost but walked away with an invitation to compete in the Blind Pig bracket and a suggestion to add sour to my drink. As my competitive side started to come out, I knew I was not quitting without beating someone.
I practiced the whole next week and the Orange Crush went from an orange drink in a boring pint glass to a martini rimmed with Strawberry Pop Rocks and an orange. It was sexy and delicious, so what wasn’t to love?
The next week I competed at a small Lansing dive bar that I’ve never heard of – the Colonial. I only had one person cheering for me, but I was determined to kick some ass. I beat a boy who wasn’t a bartender but decided to compete as a favor to his uninterested girlfriend. I walked away with a smirk on my face and an invitation to compete at Leo’s Outpost the following Sunday.
At the log cabin themed Leo’s, I arrived with my one fan feeling pretty confident after my last win. I was ready to bring it until I saw my competition talking and laughing with the judges and competition organizers. I was nervous, but then I tasted his drink. Let’s just say, the main liquors were different flavors of Smirnoff and it tasted like something I made in my freshman dorm room. The judges agreed, and I was on my way to the next round.
The following week I was told the marketing director was organizing a photo shoot for the remaining contestants.
“Oh God, a photo shoot? On Saturday morning? In Lansing?”
After getting lost for 20 minutes I found the creepy warehouse that we were shooting at. While I waited for an hour freezing without heat to get my picture taken, I got to chat with Michelle and Christy, two other bartenders. During the photo shoot I had to “look natural” while holding a martini glass still, smiling, being fanned with a cardboard box and having a flashbulb the size of a pizza pointed at my face. I thought it must have been a disaster, but no one would see it right?
No one besides the Greater Lansing Area?!
Oh yeah, my picture, along with seven others, was featured in a full page City Pulse advertisement. I got calls and emails about it, and my sister decided to save it for the “wedding box,” a box that I didn’t know existed, but apparently it’s full of embarrassing photos of me.
Next week was the semi-finals, and I was competing against my new friend Christy at the Draft House. Obviously I wanted to move on to the finals; they were being held a Tripper’s, but I wouldn’t’ be that upset if I lost to Christy. Knowing I had to step up my flair, I practiced flipping empty drink shakers. Turns out it’s not that impressive compared to the bottle-throwers.
Christy was up first, but she dropped her Smirnoff bottle and shattered it.
“Good, no pressure. I can’t do worse than that, I might even rock it.”
Well, I dropped a bottle too, but luckily mine landed on the bar mats that were put down minutes before. Because of a quick recovery I won by four points and was headed to the finals!
In the off-week I practiced my shaker-flipping and bottle-throwing skills meanwhile Tripper’s developed some photos.
When I walked in to work on Thursday I found 50 of my pictures staring back at me, including six poster-sized portraits above the bar!
I was everywhere.
There was even another quarter page City Pulse ad, featuring just me.
“Great,” I thought. “More filler for the wedding box.”
I was super nervous but excited; I was the only person representing Tripper’s on our home turf. I was set to compete against a randomly-drawn wild card bartender. If I won, I’d face Inky again.
Not that many wild card bartenders showed up and, as fate would have it, I had to compete against my newly ex-boyfriend, who was also a coworker. The air was thick with irony, but of course I pulled myself together and won!
Next I was up against Inky and her blowtorch. Even though I had my flipping, throwing and even a cute little saying (“Tripper’s, I’ve got a crush on you”), I still couldn’t beat her.
Michelle, from Brandigan Brothers, won against the crowd favorite, Curry, and moved to the final round. Both were amazing, but Inky won and walked away with the trip to Vegas and an oversized cocktail trophy.
Maybe it was destiny or maybe it was her intimidating blowtorch, but Inky was the Cocktail Champion. I reassured myself with a few Orange Crushes and called it a night. I had a great run on the competitive cocktail circuit, but I have to admit, it sure will be nice to lose the Monday morning hangovers.