Five of Dallas’s most promising bartenders assembled at High & Tight Barbershop last Wednesday to duke it out over cocktails of their own creation, all of which featured Amaro Montenegro.
Amaro Montenegro is a sweeter amaro with floral, warm spice, and candied orange peel notes that finishes with an ethereal bitterness. It’s what I’d call a gateway amaro for uninitiated tastebuds. The sweetness to bitterness ratio is heavily skewed in the former’s favor, making it much easier for those who’ve never had much amaro experience to acclimate to the world of bitter liqueurs.
The event itself was a fun and casual neighborhood affair, one not tainted by pomp and circumstance. The crowd was mostly industry friends, and each of the competitors were hand-selected and invited to participate in the event, which brought some fresh faces to the Dallas booze competition scene. The featured players were Andrew Stofko (Victor Tango’s), Noah Partridge (Osteria Pane Vino & Crudo Wood Fired Taverna), Austin Gurley (High & Tight Barbershop), Rogher Jeri (Renfield’s Corner), and Ricky Cleva (Henry’s Majestic & Atwater Alley). The judging panel featured Omar Yeefoon from The 86 Company, Matt Orth from Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, and Matt Brown from Total Beverage Solution. Not too shabby of a lineup.
The order of cocktail presentations was determined by drawing names out of a hat, and with the judges in position at the bar and the spectators all with Montenegro cocktails in hand, the competition was officially underway.
First up was Andrew Stofko with his Japansese-inspired cocktail, Seppuku Realé, which featured squid ink, seaweed, nori, and sesame. When asked about what place Montenegro holds at his bar, Andrew responded, “I’ve found Montenegro to be a great introductory amaro–less bitter than many of its counterparts, but a start in that direction to the unfamiliar palate. I use it mostly as a modifier in drinks at the bar, but for the competition I wanted to try using it as a base spirit. Other industry folk will order it as shots, too, occasionally.”
The finished cocktail was stunning in its simplicity with a mysterious black hue and nori and sesame seed garnish. Despite its potentially intimidating color, the drink was pleasant and easy (read: too easy) to drink, with an umami taste throughout that just made me want sushi real bad.
This competition was off to a good start.
The next player up was Noah Partridge with his cocktail, the Montenegroni, which I must tell you was my favorite moniker of the night. Montenegroni? This is genius-level pun game. Respect. Noah’s cocktail was a play on the classic cocktail and consisted of Aperol, Horizon Gin, and Montenegro served up in a coupe glass with a lemon garnish. It was balanced, well-rounded, and boozy–all of the things you want from a Negroni. At this point, I was already starting to sense that the judges were going to struggle to pick a winner; these guys were bringing their A-game.
Enter Austin Gurley. I didn’t know it yet, but he was about to take this competition in a new direction. The barman has no lack of veneration for the event’s star ingredient. When asked about his view on the liqueur, he replied, “Amaro Montenegro is fantastic juice! Bright rose on the nose with a nice caramel sweetness and an herbal bitter finish. It’s absolutely fantastic at balancing cocktails since it adds a nice viscosity and sweetness to offset more tart and dry components, then provides a bitter finish for complexity.”
His cocktail, Elinas Sonnet, featured a whole egg (he’s favoring flips this fall), strawberry orgeat, hibiscus syrup, caramel cordial, lime, Redemption Rye, and Montenegro with Angostura bitters for garnish. Did you get all of that? What he did with that laundry list of ingredients is nothing short of sorcery. I expected a cocktail that would break under the weight of its components, and what I experienced was a light and airy beverage that was reminiscent of strawberry milks from my childhood … except boozier and so much better.
The penultimate competitor was Rogher Jeri with a riff on an Italian soda, La Dolce Elena. Another Montenegro enthusiast, Rogher had this to say about it: “I enjoy Montenegro for its beautiful balance between the sweet and herbaceous bitterness that give Italian amari their unique qualities. I drink it on its own, neat. Sometimes mixing it 2 parts with 1 part Grand Marnier. I’ve also been playing with aging it in American Oak barrels, which adds a beautiful vanilla and oaky sweetness that balances beautifully with the original recipe. Because of the limited quantities we can age at a time, it isn’t on our menu, but if you ask, we might just have some you can sip on.”
I knew the man was serious when he presented his homemade soda with yerba mate and chamomile tea. Another player who came to win! Along with the soda, his cocktail included ice made of Crazy Water 3 for its minerality, Hoodoo chicory liqueur, orange zest, and rose water. The aromatics of his cocktail highlighted the floral characteristics of the Montenegro and the presentation emphasized it as well with an elaborate rose garnish.
The final competitor of the night was Ricky Cleva with this cocktail, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He’s no stranger to Montenegro, that’s for sure. In his words, “I have two cocktails on the menu in Atwater showcasing the versatility of the spirit. Montenegro is my favorite amaro at the moment. I imagine you’ll continue to see its presence on the menu in Atwater through the fall and winter menus.”
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead featured kiwi cordial, orange bitters, El Dorado 5 year rum, lime, Amaro Montenegro, and finished with a hibiscus Aperol floater and honeysuckle garnish. The cocktail resembled an end-of-summer sunset (how apropos) and possessed a slight funkiness and depth of flavor that I really enjoy. It was a welcome punch to my palate with its layers of flavor.
I did not envy the judges’ job that night. They had some serious deliberation to do, so they went to a dark corner to hash it out. All five cocktails were thoughtful, well-constructed, and impressively executed and vastly different from each other. If there were a Montenegro cocktail spectrum, the competitors covered a significantly wide range–from sweet, nostalgic flips to savory, opaque black concoctions.
And the winner is…
Andrew Stofko with his Seppuku Realé! Andrew’s win earns him a trip to the 2017 San Antonio Cocktail Conference that takes place in January where his cocktail will be featured. Second place distinction went to Austin Gurley with his Elinas Sonnet cocktail.