When the invitation arrived to participate in a cocktail competition in Normandy, France, I felt pretty good about my chances. Hosted by an organization of cider and Calvados producers, I had to create an original Calvados-based cocktail. Sure, my competition was several big-time mixologists, but I had a secret weapon: A tiny bottle of Jerry Thomas Decanter Bitters I had smuggled in my carry-on.
These competitions are serious business for bartenders and can mean big career advancement. In my role as spirits editor at Wine Enthusiast, I’ve witnessed hundreds of these competitions, and also judged a few. But this was my first time competing.
Still, I felt ready. I shook off the adrenaline rush and tried out my best psych-out swagger as we took the stage.
Game on, I thought. I’ve so got this.
I plunked down my bottle of bitters directly in front of me, like a talisman. The clock was set. And we were off.
My drink was a riff on a classic whiskey smash. As time sped by, I tried to remember all the advice I had been given over the years. I squared my shoulders and displayed my bottles to the judges: Calvados, vanilla syrup, lemon juice. Boom.
I scooped in the ice and shook my cocktail shaker hard and loud and banged it down on the bar. For garnish, my coup de grâce, I tucked red and green apple slices between the ice and the glass. I flashed a smile to the judges. Yeah, I know I’m good.
Three glasses of my amazing elixir were then ferried off to the judges.
I exhaled, then looked at the poor suckers who were fighting for second place.
Wait. Oh. My. God.
Similar to the sensation of getting off the plane at Charles de Gaulle and realizing my college-level French wouldn’t even get me through the passport check, my cocktail skills suddenly seemed, um, wan.
Bitters in my carry-on? Give that a big Gallic “Pffft.”
At their stations, the pros were digging through clanking suitcases full of rare liquor bottles and immersion blenders.
Wait. Is that a blowtorch?!
Another contestant mixed his deliciously complex drink while wearing white gloves and never spilled a drop. Then this: A few spots down from me, a man opened what can only be described as a magician’s valise, from which he pulled out liquid nitrogen.
How’d he get that on the plane?
With horror, I watched one bartender carve an orange peel rosette on the edge of a martini glass in seconds flat, while another mixologist meticulously draped elegant ribbons of lime peel across the edge of the glass—with tweezers.
It didn’t matter how many hours I had logged observing bartenders, or all the tips I culled from them, or even how tasty my drink was when I practiced making it at home. I was absolutely, completely, out of my depth.
With great ceremony, silver-plated cocktail shakers were awarded to the winners. I was not one of them.
When the scores were posted, I pushed my way to the front of the crowd, like checking to see if I’d been cast in the middle-school play. I scanned my finger down the list.
There it was: At the bottom. My drink was dead last.