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Dallas' Best Cocktail Wizards Threw Down at the Dram, and the Porch Won the Day

The Dram, the local chapter of the United States Bartenders' Guild and Campari recently teamed up for a cocktail competition showcasing many of Dallas' finest bartenders. The game: to create an aperitif -- that is, a drink meant to be enjoyed prior to a meal -- featuring Campari, an Italian liqueur most famously featured in the Negroni, a drink dating back to 1919 that mixes it with sweet vermouth and gin.

All the local mixology heavy-hitters were represented in this competition, including Whiskey Cake, The Chesterfield, Cedars Social, Victor Tango's, The Porch, and the soon-to-open Standard Pour.

The judges for this affair included Campari rep Arlene Cook, Private Social beverage director Rocco Milano and, by some strange twist of fate and luck, yours truly. Here's how it went down.

We were sequestered to a plush banquette in the Dram's front room to facilitate a blind tasting, so as not to be swayed by any personal relationships with the contestants. There were 14 competitors in all, each having seven minutes in which to prepare their ingredients and mix four drinks. A technical judge was on hand to scrutinize their every move, deducting points if a contestant spilled a drop, failed to present each bottle or had any liquid remaining in their shaker after filling the glasses.

Once the drinks were poured and adorned with garnishes, they were rushed to the judges for tasting purposes, two at a time. We were armed with plenty of ice water and neat stacks of official score sheets; each drink was to be rated on appearance, aroma, taste, and creativity, as well as how well the theme was represented.

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Each drink was completely unique, from the type of glass (a coupe, perhaps, or maybe a highball) to the ice (cubed, a mountain of crushed, or maybe none at all); some were light and delightfully drinkable, others were seriously boozy. The drink names ran the gamut from descriptive ("Campari-Hibiscus Cooler") to cerebral ("Lattice of Coincidence"). Grapefruit was well represented, with at least three of the cocktails relying heavily on the juice or zest. Anise in the form of absinthe or Pernod seemed to be another popular pairing with the bitter Campari, but there was also orange, strawberry and hibiscus concoctions to consider.

I did my best to judge objectively, pushing aside my own personal tastes to instead evaluate how well each drink fulfilled the scoring parameters. A relatively tasty drink was damned by its complete lack of aroma, while a drink that tasted fantastic but seemed more suited to after-dinner consumption had significant points docked, and an entry with an average flavor but intoxicatingly gorgeous aroma and creative garnish neared the top of the ranks.

Once the scores were tallied (and I was somewhat sloshed), Thomas Holbert of The Porch emerged as the winner with his "Rosita," an inventive mixture of Campari, anejo tequila, orange-honey syrup, orange bitters and grapefruit-flavored sparkling water. Runner-up was The Chesterfield's Nico Ponce with his "Campari-Hibiscus Cooler," a bright, effervescent creation perfect for springtime and cleverly rimmed with hibiscus salt.

Winner Holbert was presented with a bottle of Campari the size of a toddler and will go on to represent Dallas in the Manhattan Cocktail Classic on May 13th; the victor of that event will travel halfway around the world to represent the USBG at the 2012 International Cocktail Competition in Beijing. I, on the other hand, will merely be travelling down the street to see what else Holbert is concocting behind the bar at The Porch.

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