The York this past Sunday, Oct. 4, was decorated with a different dynamic. The Ice Cream Social team continued their promise to provide another round and another chapter of their unique addition to Syracuse nightlife: The Craft Cocktail Battle.
The event brought out familiar faces from two weeks prior, but it also coaxed out new faces. Aside the crowd being as beautiful as the first — people dressed up despite the lack of attire specificity — the population of the community had decreased, giving others more leg and elbow room.
It’s not to say the ability to easily move through the front room of the restaurant is a bad thing. It simply felt strange that there was a tad bit more room.
By chance, this worked out favorably as the back room was closed off this round. The majority of people hung out by the bar area two weeks ago, so not having a back room was not detrimental.
For fare: Owera Wine and Life of Reilley vodka-based cocktails among others were still offered, but the food had shifted from cheese plates and chicken to bar nuts and Starburst candy.
Pass or not on the fruit candy, the true sweetness was found in the specialty cocktails concocted by the celebrity bartenders competing in the event.
The tournament kicked off around 7:30 p.m., earlier. Where last round’s timing prolonged the inevitable and had me asking why it hadn’t started — I came in late — it felt a tad bit awkward; yet this week’s awareness of time did not give the sense that the game was rushed. Central New Yorkers showed up, socialized and collected the on-the-house beverage of their liking, and that’s when Chris Bily and DJ Jeff Watkins kicked the night off.
Watkins returned to his role as music provider, playing tunes and mashups. A favorite of mine, an odd mix, was Bloc Party’s playing in the background of Soulja Boy’s lyrics. I’m not sure how that works either, but — coming from a Bloc Party fan — it does.
Ben Reilley and I found ourselves in front of the speakers as the first round, but we moved. Watkins, the honorary hype man for the event, knows how to blast the tunes, but he did turn the volume down upon request. Just as it’s natural to let the crowd mingle, it’s also natural to strive for Notch 11.
This week, instead of a battle of wits, drawings determined the winners of a bottle of Life of Reilley’s vodka, a $100 gift cart to Jet Black, a bottle of Owera Vineyards wine, and two tickets to see Grace Potter at The Landmark Theatre.
There was a high-top in the back, set up specifically for the guest judges. Jamie Ann Owens (The Society Gurl) reprised her role, and she was joined by Lauren Kochian and K-Rock’s Carsen. All of the judges stuck to their guns and gave objective criticism in regard to the drinks prepared with the secret ingredients: grape jelly, tarragon, and Gannon’s Isle mint chocolate chip ice cream.
World Martini Lounge’s Justin “Buddha” LaBrake went head-to-head with Alto Cinco’s Max Puglisi in the first battle of grape jelly. Although both lacked in grape flavor, determined by the judges and the patrons, Puglisi’s mojito eked out the win. He did eke it out: aside breaking a glass, he used up the seven minutes to the very final second.
The second battle, the Battle of Tarragon — sounds like some Tolkien creation — Hannah Cisar of Strada Mia was paired up with Al’s Wine & Whiskey Lounge’s Jamie Luzinski. Although Cisar’s vibrant cocktail appeared elegant in presentation, it’s sweetness came across as an equivalent to eyes staring into the sun. Where some may love sweetness, it was too much for the others.
Puglisi, the young 20-something, was having a great time. I had a few moments to talk with him. He said he was surprised to make it past the first round, and win or lose he’s happy that the art and his hospitality peers are getting recognition. “It’s amazing how quickly the minutes pass,” he said, referring to his down-to-the-wire finale.
From an outsider’s perspective, this is a whole new view on pressure. Whether it’s dinner, happy hour or late night, the bartenders are rushing around to make sure their customers are happy. Now, the faces of hospitality have that opportunity to compete in friendly competition.
Luzinski often looked down: when his products were introduced, when his name was mentioned to be voted on. When he was deemed the winner of the round, utilizing mint chocolate chip ice cream with various liquors, he humbly smiled. After the judges made the determination, the two last competitors, who were standing next to each other out from behind the bar, addressed each other.
Puglisi said before the final battle that it’s the bartenders who are competing. Whether they win or lose gives recognition for their work in making Syracuse’s restaurant/bar and hospitality scene what it is. But, he said, the businesses they represent do get a hefty share of the recognition.
Regardless of the venue, each is somewhat symbiotically working toward that one goal of establishing a niche of the local economy. The restaurants are giving people reasons to believe in their community whilst they submerse themselves in the post-work/after-dusk activities, recognizing how the service industry workers make them happy when they enter a particular business, and we are consistently given reasons to keep getting out.
It’s more than simply pouring a pint.
[The featured photo: Chris Bily, Max Puglisi, Jamie Luzinski, and Jeff Wakins after the final cocktails have been completed. Photo by C. Malone]