Drambuie is best known for its use in the super-simple Rusty Nail, yes. But the Scotch whisky liqueur infused with honey, herbs and spices is more versatile than you think, as Monday night’s second annual Modern Classics cocktail competition proved to a comfortably crowded speakeasy in downtown St. Pete.
Hosted at Iberian Rooster’s Subcentral in partnership with Chilled Magazine, the national competition visited Austin, San Francisco, Seattle, New York and D.C. before making its way to St. Pete (a stop originally scheduled for September but delayed due to Hurricane Irma), where four local bartenders faced off for a dreamy excursion. The winner from each market, you see, gets to retrace the history of Drambuie, which dates back to 1746, from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh’s booming cocktail scene.
Drambuie National Brand Ambassador Vance Henderson set the tone for the night.
“The Rusty Nail is delicious. It is iconic. It deserves all the respect it has garnered for the last however many years. But Drambuie is so much more than just that one iconic and delicious cocktail,” Henderson said. “So we have put it in the very capable hands of phenomenal and outrageous and remarkable bartenders all across the country to see what they can do to really showcase the versatility of this living liquid legend.”
Turns out, the original cocktails in the spotlight from bartenders Brenda Terry (Tampa Yacht & Country Club), Lauren Klemm (Mise en Place), Ryan O’Neill (Copper Shaker) and Tony Finotti (Copper Shaker) were equally different from one another — and really damn good.
Drinks with carefully chosen ingredients such as roasted chestnut orgeat, red curry powder, fresh heather and cranberry ginger syrup? I mean, come on. What’s not to like? They’re a testament to how much ingenuity and talent there is within the region’s bar community, for sure.
Critiqued by the crowd and an onstage panel of judges (Henderson, plus Chilled’s Anthony Graziano, 2016 Modern Classics winner Sam Wiener of Miami, and WFLA’s Britney Gooden), both Finotti and O’Neill took inspiration from the title of the competition for their St. Pete-repping cocktails. The contestants started developing recipes back in February, says O’Neill, who presented Out of the Skye, a refreshing, drinkable play on the Isle of Skye that combines elements of a Rusty Nail and a whiskey sour.
Out of the Skye featured Drambuie, Monkey Shoulder, cranberry ginger syrup, lemon juice, Angostura bitters, egg white and an Oloroso sherry rinse, while Finotti’s Dram Slam, Thank You Man mixed Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur, fresh-pressed apple juice, roasted chestnut orgeat and orange bitters with Drambuie. His tasty twist on the Mai Tai, swapping traditional almond syrup (that’s orgeat) for chestnut, was full of fall flair.
This food editor’s favorite cocktail came from Terry, who made Tampa proud with Brigadoon Boba. Taiwanese bubble tea influenced her well-thought-out drink — a combination of Drambuie, green tea, lychee syrup, lime juice, sweetened condensed milk, red curry powder and Angostura — she says, alongside southeast Asian flavors. There were even some tapioca pearls at the bottom, held together by a festive umbrella garnish, for good measure.
Also representing Cigar City, Klemm’s drink — Melvina’s Luck, which called for Drambuie, Hendrick’s Gin, pear bergamot basil syrup, lime juice and fresh heather — was, awesomely, inspired by Scottish myth. The result: An all-around lovely concoction that was hard not to fall for.
You gotta love a sipper with a story, too. A warrior named Oscar, as the legend goes, asked a messenger to deliver the unfortunate news of his death during battle to his financé Malvina, as well as a sprig of purple heather. A final token of Oscar’s love for her, the flowers turned white when Malvina’s tears fell upon them.
“Her wish for other women who were happy in love was that if you have white heather in your bouquet, you will be happy in love,” said Klemm. “So since heather is central to Drambuie, I wanted to play on those really soft notes and create a cocktail that was aromatic, botanical and delicate.”
The results were in around 8 p.m. or so (about the time I went back for more complimentary basil hummus from upstairs) — and O’Neill was announced as the evening’s victorious bartender. Out of the Skye is on special at Copper Shaker all month long, by the way, so belly up to the bar.
According to Finotti, competitions like Modern Classics give bartenders around town the opportunity to flex. Whipping up a roasted chestnut orgeat on the fly at a high-volume watering hole isn’t always an option.
“I can express myself more intently,” he said. “Rather than 30 or 40 seconds, I have more time to do things outside my comfort zone that I might not be able to do behind the bar.”
These sort of events showcase Tampa Bay to the world as well. The more bartenders and other folks who attend, as Finotti puts it, the more spirit brands will be attracted to our neck of the woods. And considering that brand ambassador Henderson called St. Pete the most innovative city in the competition, the proof is in the juice.