The words appeared on my iPhone screen. I had to read them twice to be sure I was interpreting them correctly. “Hey, do you want to judge a cocktail throwdown for Maui Time at Dirty Monkey on Monday?” Wait, what? It was a text from my boyfriend Anthony (who I must disclose is Maui Time’s editor). Me? Sip tasty cocktails all night and present my opinion? I may have read the text message twice, but he didn’t have to ask me twice. Hell, yeah!
A home cook who digs intense flavor, a food blogger re-establishing her “back from hiatus” Dining on Maui blog, and home cocktail mixer and “fellow booze nerd,” as our good friend and Maui Time’s currently vacationing food writer, Jen, describes, how could I resist? While I’d judged talent and theatre fringe festivals the past few years as a local actress and director, the last time I was slated to judge a food throwdown — a chili cook-off as a representative of Maui Time — I caught a sinus-busting cold and couldn’t attend.
This time, nothing would ooze into my path! That weekend, I relaxed and enjoyed a lot of sleep. By Labor Day, I remained happy and healthy and headed to The Dirty Monkey in Lahaina with my boyfriend, who was covering the event for Maui Time.
We arrive at The Dirty Monkey, and after chomping down on The Dirty Monkey’s awesome pub fries, I was seated next to fellow judges for the evening — Ashley Leal of Fleetwood’s on Front St, Chef Isaac Bancaco of the Andaz Resort, and Keli‘i Heen of Young’s Market. I felt honored to sit amongst such culinary royalty and soaked up every word they said.
We and The Dirty Monkey patrons were introduced to the seven professional Maui bartenders who signed on to participate in The Dirty Monkey’s first Girls Gameday Cocktail Throwdown — Maya Alexander (Down The Hatch), Dolly Espino (Lava Rock Cafe), Mari Howe (The Mill House), Denise Nakanishi (Steel Horse Saloon) Kara Powers (Three’s Bar & Grill), Jenn Richardson (Milagros) and Kendra Visscher (Pita Paradise). The rules? Seemingly simple as syrup. The bartenders were to prepare two of their own craft cocktails each — one with Milagro Tequila, and the other with Hendrick’s Gin.
The top cocktail would be represented on The Dirty Monkey’s menu throughout football season, and the bartender would be presented with a special and adorable football trophy adorned with The Dirty Monkey’s furry mascot.
As the ladies prepared their cocktails, my fellow judges and I watched their techniques and eagerly awaited their shaken and/or stirred libations . One-by-one the cocktails of the first four gals were set in front of us, and we eagerly sipped, enjoyed, and rated. There was confusion at first, as the glasses were not labeled, and as we passed them amongst ourselves, we had to remind each other which drink was which. Fortunately, we’d each written them down, so among the four of us, we were able to match flavor and garnish to each drink and bartender, but next time, it may be a good idea to label the drinks. A short time later, the final three participants repeated the process, and the sampling and discussion began again.
Many of the drinks were incredible, as it was clear that most of the bartenders had put careful thought into each ingredient to be sure that the flavors were balanced and compatible. I was disappointed in a few, however, as some seemed hastily thrown together without much thought to the ingredients or with effort to set them apart from an average margarita or gin martini. Also, I was surprised that so many drinks were served with crushed or cubed ice when ice spheres or coupe glasses were readily available for each contestant. Unfortunately, crushed and cubed ice melts quickly in a humid/warm environment, so some of the cocktails were watered down as we were sampling them, and whatever robust flavor the drinks may have had at the moment of mixing was changed significantly. Fewer points for technique in that cast.
The bartenders who elevated their cocktails used their own personally crafted simple syrups or shrubs rated much higher on my score sheet. As a home cook and home mixer, I make use of my own crafted simples, and I greatly appreciate a bartender/mixologist who takes the time to do the same. Extra points for technique!
While some of the participants — in particular, the phenomenally talented Maya of Down the Hatch — impressed with their specially crafted simples and shrubs, an extraordinary mixologist stood out from the rest, Mari Howe of The Mill House, raised the bar with her “Grid Iron” and “The Red Zone” cocktails. (She also made use of the ice sphere.)
Mari’s “The Grid Iron” contained Hendrick’s gin, basil, cucumbers, freshly squeezed lime juice, and a favorite of mine, Agua de Bolivia — a mild, yet sweetly herbaceous liquor. She garnished it with a small football bead at the end of a plastic pick.
Her tequila cocktail, “The Red Zone,” contained Milagro tequila, chili liqueur (Ancho Reyes), her own syrup made with Haiku honey and a tea of dried hibiscus leaves, freshly squeezed lemon juice, orange bitters, and a spicy/sweet chili salt that included, but not limited to, Allspice, sugar and cloves — quintessential Autumn flavors. She garnished it with an orange peal lovingly carved into the shape of a football. In both cocktails, her flavors were balanced, and her ingredients fresh and innovative. I am not a huge fan of tequila; however, I’d indulge in “The Red Zone” any day. Mari elevated the “margarita” into a culinary craft cocktail that I’d be delighted to order.
Thus, it’s no surprise that Mari won, and her top cocktail, “The Red Zone” will appear throughout football season on The Dirty Monkey’s menu.
I enjoyed my experience as a judge for the Girls Gameday Throwdown, and I look forward to the opportunity to judge again in the future. Thank you, Maui Time, for the opportunity!
Check out the story written by my longtime boyfriend, Anthony Pignataro, on Maui Time’s webpage here.
*With the exception of Matthew Robb’s photo above, all other photos above are courtesy of Angie Thompson, Dining on Maui.