T here are few better measures of how much cocktailing has evolved in the nine years since the Charleston Wine + Food Festival was founded than Tristan bartender Megan Deschaine's changing relationship with yuzu, the featured ingredient in the final round of Saturday's Iron Mixologist competition.
Nearly a decade ago, Deschaine first encountered the rough-skinned East Asian citrus fruit while working in a Japanese restaurant in Boulder, Colo. Deschaine used a presweetened yuzu jelly as the basis for a straightforward mojito. For Saturday's contest, though, Deschaine and The Grocery's Hallie Arnold were given unadulterated yuzu juice and eight minutes to transform it into a winning cocktail, distinguished by originality, balance, aroma and taste.
"It is the most sour of all sour fruits," said Dale DeGroff, the New York City bartender widely credited with jumpstarting the current cocktail renaissance. DeGroff and co-host Charlotte Voisey cautioned the bartenders to use the ingredient sparingly without obscuring it.
Arnold's approach involved carbonating raspberries, but her Yuzu Voodoo was ultimately deemed a notch less impressive than Deschaine's Will You Rosemary Me?, a rosemary-garnished combination of bourbon, vodka, yuzu juice, Angostura bitters and egg whites (the inclusion of which gave the co-hosts a chance to talk about flips and food safety: "If chefs can handle eggs, bartenders can handle eggs," DeGroff said.
Despite the co-hosts' efforts to stir up competitive spirit, Arnold and Deschaine were chummy throughout the event. They sneaked into a back corner to share shots and posed for a selfie while the judges deliberated.
To reach the finals, Arnold and Deschaine had to out-cocktail Gerry Kieran of Seanachai and Sarah Martin of Bay Street Biergarten; the four competitors were selected during a preliminary competition held over the holidays. Kieran was the first bartender eliminated. Although cocktails were rated primarily on flavor and aesthetics, bartender personality and the cocktail's name were also taken into account. Yet Kieran called his entry "Spring is Finally Here in Charleston Today."
"Is that the name of your cocktail or the book you're writing?," Voisey asked.
The departure of Kieran left three women in contention for the title. "Isn't that great?," DeGroff said. "We didn't have that in the '70s."
In addition to winning the title, Deschaine took home a trophy and claimed a trip to Tales of the Cocktail, the annual industry convention in New Orleans. She might have been happy just to keep the chef's coat she was issued for the event, now in its third year.
"This is the first thing I've ever had with my name on it," she said.
Deschaine will remain at Tristan until it closes on April 12. She plans to head up the bar program at its successor restaurant, 492, opening later this year.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.
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