If tending bar on All Hallows' Eve is a job that separates the women from the girls, I know which side of the line Rachael Smith stands on. The morning of November 1, there she was back in her post at Bar DeVille, looking none the worse for wear despite a late night that had involved a couple shots and a hot bath at some point. "Ladies, are you ready?" she asked. "It's a whiting fish head! And it fucking smells like shit because that's the nature of the fish."
Smith went on to make one of the most colorful concoctions yet featured in our bartender-to-bartender Cocktail Challenge: the Chum Guzzler, a pink-tinged riff on a margarita made with sardine-infused tequila and garnished with lurid blue curacao ice cubes in addition to that fish head.
Our second full year of the biweekly feature (which kicked off with Mike Ryan of Sable back in April 2011) was colorful all around, complete with the September debut of accompanying videos that let you watch the bartenders make the drinks they've devised. And for some reason there was more than one decapitated head bobbing atop a beverage—challenged with PEZ candy, Jay Schroeder (then of Red Door, now beverage manager for Rick Bayless's restaurants) garnished his genever-based cocktail, the Declaration of Neutrality, with a sprig of thyme and a grinning Winnie the Pooh.
Challenges tended to be not sugary but savory, though—when they were foodstuffs at all. Tasked with chalk, Alex Renshaw (then of Sable, now of Drumbar) ground up some colored Crayola sidewalk chalk and used it as a thickener for his applejack cocktail, the Teacher's Pet. "Is it edible?" an onlooker asked. "Nontoxic, at least," said Renshaw.
In fact, edibility has seemed theoretical at times this year, though our bartenders seemed to take gross-out ingredients in stride. Challenged with cod milt, the male fish's sperm sac (semen included), Mary Rose Braun (then of Blackbird, now in Philly) crafted Pearl's Neck Brace, an elegant if bawdily named drink made with pisco, cod-milt puree, stout syrup, and rum-soaked boba pearls. "It's almost like how you would imagine an oyster shooter," she said. "Just a little more fishy."
I was out-and-out amazed by how palatable Lone Wolf bartender Austin Skiles managed to make his Mezcal Negrossni, featuring what for my money is the nastiest ingredient yet: potted meat, a "food product" made from pink slime-like mechanically separated chicken.
I hadn't been sure what to expect down the street at the Aviary, Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas's cocktail bar/chem lab. Sure enough, chef de cuisine/scientist Micah Melton used a rotary evaporator to turn his challenge, goat cheese, into a mind-bending distillate that looked like water but tasted and smelled like chevre and blueberries—hence his drink's name, the Bleu Cheese Martini.
Jason Cevallos of the Aviary's private bar, the Office, got the opposite of a colorless but flavorful substance when challenged by GEB's Dave Michalowski with dragon fruit, a bright pink, exotic-looking ingredient that, as Cevallos put it, "doesn't taste like anything." To give it some character, he pulled out all the stops, using not only top-drawer champagne and a rare French aperitif but a tincture made with the tropical plant quassia, a bittering agent, and his favorite small-batch tequila, Fortaleza Blanco. In search of a simple name for his drink—"something like Sue," Cevallos said—he called the tequila's maker, a friend of his, and asked for the name of his dog.
That's how a cocktail from the most exclusive bar in town came to be called Sandy. I'm sure this challenge was just one testament to the creativity, generosity, and humor of Cevallos, who died unexpectedly in Hong Kong last month. May he rest in peace.