“I think I need a shot of whiskey.”
Mon Ami’s Olaf Harmel was sitting in the soaring atrium of Austin’s Hyatt Regency Hotel as he awaited transportation to the Long Center where he would be competing in the Maker’s Mark cocktail shakeoff. It was to be one of the highlights of the Hill Country Wine & Food Festival’s “Stars Across Texas” gala, and Olaf was preparing to face off against bartenders from Austin, Houston, and Dallas for this year’s cocktalian crown. He was, admittedly, feeling a little nervous.
He seemed totally cool a month earlier competing against five of the Alamo City’s finest boozers and shakers in the Havana’s dimly lit basement bar. That night, setting the tone for the statewide event, each had been charged with creating a new drink based on the classic John Collins (itself a variation on the even more
classic Tom Collins theme) featuring Maker’s Mark. Bourbon, citrus, a sweetener, and some sort of fizzy were the only requirements; from that base, the drinks were as varied as the personalities of the men (and one woman) making them. Eddie Martinez from SoHo, for example, used fresh apple muddled with Maker’s then mixed with lime juice, simple syrup, and a squirt of soda water — and in a bid for showmanship points, he beat egg white and sugar in a chilled copper bowl to make a foam that then topped each drink. Other renegade ingredients included yuzu juice, an infusion of ginger, green tea and honey, Aperol, champagne, and blood orange liqueur from Sicily.
Salerno, the orange liqueur, was a key ingredient in Harmel’s drink, too, and its flavor profile (a slight bitterness from orange peel) was both softened and reinforced with fresh blood orange juice. As usual, he built his drink carefully, adding lemon juice and an infusion of Texas honey and lavender to the bourbon mix. Two ounces of Topo Chico topped the drink, along with a splash of the orange juice; after tasting each drink with a straw, a little more Salerno was added to some. Only then did the tall drinks get garnished with a sprig of lavender.
“I’ve got it down now; the drink won’t be as watery as it was before,” said Harmel when we got together at Mon Ami the week before the Austin competition. “The crowd saved my ass at Havana because I was able to correct the drinks they got `after making four for the judges`.” Expressing confidence: “The drink is right on the money; I’ll stand by it.”
He nevertheless tweaked three different versions as we talked, discovering that the fresh blood oranges he had used initially were anything but. “Fresh is best,” he said, “but for the competition I’m better off with juice in a carton from Italy.” Only the drink’s name remained to be determined.
Harmel and his newly baptized Orange Blood Collins had three equally confident competitors in Austin, and their variations on the Collins theme were as different as their makers. Rail-thin Adam Bryant from Austin’s Bar Congress could have stepped out of a 1890s bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin (modified handlebar and all), only the Technicolor tattoos gave him a more contemporary, street-savvy look. Lemon zest was a major part of his drink — as was beer. Trimly bearded Justin Burrow from Haven in Houston counted on both big jolts of Angostura bitters and ginger beer for his contender. And shaggy, goofy Eddie “Lucky” Campbell of Bolsa in Dallas used multiple citrus juices, an apple syrup, a five-spice tincture, and a whipped ginger foam to make his drink stand out.
It was likely either the spice mix or the mid-air heel click that won Lucky the judges’ crown. Those who have been to Mon Ami know Harmel as a deliberate drinks maker not given to hijinks behind the bar. For him, balance is key. And yet it’s possible that the dominant bitters bagged Burrow the second tier People’s Choice award. “The guy from Dallas certainly deserved to win the contest all around, God bless him, but I really thought the crowd was `getting my drink`,” Harmel said after the foam had settled.
We got together again a few days after the competition. “I worked my ass off and got good comments from the audience,” recalled
Harmel. “I would have been happy with the People’s Choice award. But hey, I’m in the drinks business, so it’s not bad … and I’m making cocktails that make a lot of people happy.” He’s likely to be raising even more spirits when the new Mon Ami opens across the corridor from the present space in a month or so. The bar will be longer and more efficient, he says. He’s wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Carpe Diem” as we talk, and you can bet he’ll seize the day when the doors open.