Used to be, not long ago, if you asked for a fancy cocktail in the Hudson Valley, you were screwdrivered. “Five, ten years ago you couldn’t get a cocktail only two hours north of Manhattan,” remembers Ethan Kelley of Dutch’s Spirits. “Something was getting lost in translation. Especially with all the farm-to-table food: We’ve got these amazing ingredients, and the bulk of places still can’t bang out a simple cocktail? We’re seeing that change, and that’s the exciting part.”
If you’ve been waiting for the bar scene to catch up with the cuisine, get excited. The Hudson Valley Bartender Challenge, to be held on Sunday, July 27 at Rock and Rye Tavern in New Paltz, is the local cocktail connoisseur’s can’t-miss summer event. By invitation only, 12 of the area’s most innovative, educated bartenders will compete for First Place and associated bragging rights. Each will write a cocktail recipe showcasing a top-shelf spirit from a local distillery, assigned at random, and mix their drink before a judicial panel of industry all-stars.
Admission is open to the 21+ public. A ticket gets you samples of each entrant’s elixir and a chance to vote for the People’s Choice Award. All proceeds will benefit the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley.
Cassie Fellet conceived of the event to help continue the development of a local cocktail community. “When people tell me that there’s no good place to get a good drink in the Hudson Valley, I think that’s absolute horsewash,” says Fellet, owner of Rock and Rye Tavern – and an excellent bartender to boot. “We want to showcase the restaurants and bars in the area that have a true culinary approach to their cocktail program, and the few bartenders out there that have picked up the torch and convinced the Powers that Be to let them run with it. I hope that with a little friendly competition, bosses will take more notice of their bar program and put more resources into it.”
This year’s contestants include Kat Dunn of Fish and Game in Hudson, Kyle Kelley of Mill House Brewing Company in Poughkeepsie, Sally Rich of the Stissing House in Pine Plains, Josh Rosenmeier of the Stockade Tavern in Kingston (recently named one of Esquire magazine’s Best Bars in America, 2014) and Jordan Thomas of the Shelter in Rhinebeck. Representatives from the Crimson Sparrow in Hudson, Market Street in Rhinebeck and Rock and Rye Tavern, as well as a few wildcards, will top off the competition.
“I’m excited to be a part of it,” says Dunn, who built a career in Boston and New York City before moving north for Fish and Game. “What’s happening here is special, and I think it’s important for people to understand. We’re using local ingredients, we’re using seasonal ingredients and making things that you can’t do anywhere else in the country. It’s much different than what you get in the City and, from my perspective, a lot of times, much better than what you get in the City. Here, we have the time and energy to work on things.”
On challenge day, Dunn and company will put their time and energy into impressing a trio of judges: F. Paul Pacult, “America’s foremost spirits authority,” according to Forbes.com; Josey Packard, a founding bartender at Boston’s famous Drink; and Ethan Kelley, who served as beverage director of the Brandy Library in Manhattan before joining the Dutch’s Spirits team.
As to what the judges may taste for in a winning drink, Kelley offers some insight: “One thing every cocktail has to have is balance. That’s like saying a car has to have four wheels. Things I’m personally attracted to are ease of production – if somebody’s going to make an amazing cocktail, it would be doubly amazing if that recipe could get floated around so other bartenders who aren’t as skilled could make it – and utilizing what’s available locally and seasonally.” He encourages contestants to “have some fun, throw some personality into it, smile a lot and make it quickly. You’ve got three very different judges, stylewise, and I don’t think we’re going to agree on a damn thing.”
We can all agree that it’s an exciting time for local spirits. The Hudson Valley Bartender Challenge is sponsored by Black Dirt Distillery of Pine Island; Catskill Distilling Company of Bethel; Coppersea Distilling of West Park, featuring New York Raw Rye; Dutch’s Spirits of Pine Plains, featuring New York Sugar Wash Moonshine; Finger Lakes Distilling Company of Burdett; Greenhook Ginsmiths of Greenhook, featuring Greenhook Gin; Hillrock Estate of Pine Plains, featuring Solera Aged Bourbon; Hudson Valley Distillers of Clermont; Millbrook Distillery of Stanfordville; the Noble Experiment of Brooklyn, featuring Owney’s Rum; and Tuthilltown Spirits of Gardiner, featuring Half Moon Gin. Most will host public tastings on event day.
Matching the best in the business with ingredients like these guarantees good times and tipples. “You put a bunch of bartenders in a room, and it’s fun no matter what,” says Dunn. This is your best shot to rub elbows with your favorite bartender – or discover the one who’ll serve you right.
“The best way to get a good drink isn’t to go in and read a cocktail menu. If you get to be a regular, your bartender will know what kind of cocktail you like and be able to turn you on to something you’ll absolutely adore. This competition is trying to set a benchmark of whomwe think you should know,” says Fellet. “Find who you like; it’s your chance for them to come to you.”
The Hudson Valley Bartender Challenge begins at 1 p.m. on Sunday, July 27 at Rock and Rye Tavern, located at 215 Huguenot Street in New Paltz. Tickets cost $30 in advance, $40 at the door, which include samples of all competition cocktails, and can be purchased online at https://www.rockandrye.com/hudson-valley-bartender-challenge. For more information, call (845) 255-7888 or visit the Hudson Valley Bartender Challenge Facebook page.