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Bartending Competition Seeks Out Best in Phoenix

Published: Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Updated: Wednesday, February 20, 2013 14:02

Matt Tobey, District American Kitchen and Wine Bar

Courtesy of District American Kitchen and Wine Bar

Matt Tobey, District American Kitchen and Wine Bar shakes up a "Wild Child" for College Times.

Drink up! Devour Phoenix, Crescent Ballroom and Arroyo Vodka are holding the fourth annual Devour Phoenix Bartending Competition is this Sunday. For $10, the 21+ crowd can watch nine bartenders compete for two hours for the title of "Phoenix's Best Bartender." The winner will also be highlighted at the Devour Phoenix Culinary Classic at the Phoenix Art Museum. Stop by the Crescent Ballroom at 4 p.m. to watch the action.

To get you psyched, College Times asked bartender and competitor Matt Tobey from District American Kitchen and Wine Bar to create a cocktail that fit the title “Wild Child.” College Times also sat down with bartending instructor Jeff Patterson from the Tempe Bar Academy to ask some questions about the art of mixology, a component in the bartending competition.

Patterson, an Arizona native, began his bartending career in 1983 as a service bartender at a Marriott restaurant in Orlando, Florida. He eventually became a manager and trainer and helped open six bar development restaurants for Marriott. Marriott retired him after 25 years, so Patterson went to Pennsylvania, Washington and eventually back to the Valley for work. Patterson has been a bartender instructor for the Tempe Bar Academy for two years. He works eight hours a day, four days a week, on how to make more than 150 drinks from categories like cream drinks, highballs and martinis.


Is there a difference between bartending and mixology?

Bartending is learning how to make drinks. Mixology is understanding how to combine alcohols like a chef, where you have things you put together to create. Bartending would be like a cook.


How do you know what tastes good together?

You have to go off of tradition.


What do you mean by tradition?

Tradition is when you would go up to a bar, the bartender would create a cocktail totally from scratch. This is before there was Coca-Cola, 7-Up and all these mixers. He’d take fresh products, grind it up, muddle it, put some bubble water in it and mix it with the alcohol. That was your original cocktail. Beer has always been around. Bourbon, whisky, gin have always been around. After that, mixology is taking those traditional products and making them a little different. You create these contrasts of flavors: sweet, bitter and of course alcohol has this wonderful side effect called intoxication.


What’s a problem you see when people try mixing drinks?

Concept. They’re not really sure what to accomplish, what the end result is. The reality is you can go to Fry’s, buy a bunch of bottles and pour them into a glass and drink it. That would be bartending, kind of. What we’re doing is teaching people how to create a product that’s consistent, also what the expectation is and what it’s supposed to look like – the pours, the consistency of pouring.


Do you have a favorite drink you like to make?

Tea. I don’t drink alcohol.


Wait, so if you don’t drink alcohol, how—

How do I know? From experience. I can tell you by smell and look if the cocktail is right. That’s from repetition, from being in a bar for 25 years, literally 70 hours a week or more. Before then, I’ve drank on the other side of the bar. I was a musician for 13, 14 years in the Valley.


So you stopped when you became a bartender?

As I began to see my responsibilities and being surrounded by alcohol and being Irish, the best decision was not to. It’s been 15 years. I will taste it. When we’re talking about drinking, I’m talking about sitting down and having an entire drink.


Do you have any advice for people who are interested in mixology?

You need to have people skills. You better like people. If you don’t, there’re plenty of other opportunities, but this wouldn’t be one of them.


Do you have any advice for people who just want to mix drinks at home?

It’s not about all the alcohol. It’s about flavor. It’s not about becoming intoxicated. It’s about loosening up and releasing stress.


What do you think these contenders will have to do to win in the mixology department?

They’ll need to know how to use the muddling technique. They’ll probably use simple syrup, bitters and possibly fruit, but they need to understand they’re going back to the way bartending was before, when everything is created and a fresh product.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

They’re required to start with a traditional alcohol and create something out of that. Most of the ones that win aren’t going to be flavor vodkas. I don’t think so. It’s going to be bourbon or gin bases where they’ve add something to it.


Devour Phoenix Bartending Competition, Crescent Ballroom, 308 N. Second Avenue, Phoenix,, Sunday, February 24, 4 p.m., $10

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