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Getting to know you, and by "you" I mean "your drinks"

Last week at the Rye cocktail competition, Dominic Venegas was one of the judges. Dominic set up the bar program at Range, bartends at Bourbon & Branch and Cantina, and has designed/revamped cocktail menus for several restaurants around town. Oh, and also he's the spirits buyer for John Walker & Sons liquor store. In other words, he gets around.

The competition was to make a Campari-based cocktail. The judges are seated in a separate area so they are blind as to which bartender has prepared each drink. After the judging I asked Dominic how the cocktails were. "The problem with it," he said, "is that I know all of these guys and their styles already, so I could tell whose cocktail was whose."

I'm starting to know the feeling. If the drink has a pepper plus a fresh ingredient muddled together, it was likely created by Todd Smith of Bourbon & Branch. If the cocktail has wine when it seems completely unintuitive, check with Duggan McDonnell of Cantina. If it has maple syrup, it was almost definitely made by Jacques Bezuidenhout of the Starlight Room.

Today I was reading the Tablehopper newsletter and heard of a new restaurant called Laiola. I checked the website to look at the drink menu. (Am I the only person who reads food blogs for the drinks? I just don't care about food all that much.) This is the menu:

Sangria de la Dia, wine, sherry & seasonal fruit 7
Tinto de Verano, Laïola tinto & Lemonaide over ice 6
Colada, Sanctuary tea infused vodka, coconut cream, pineapple & bitters 8
Cuba Libre, Plantation grand reserve rum, cola & lime 8
Mojo, flor de caña limon rum, mint, apricot liquor, lime, and soda 8
Picasso Sour, Pisco, orange blossom water, lemon bitters, lime & egg whites 8
The Sun Also Rises, Orinoco rum, vanilla, grapefruit & lime 8
Toro de Fuego, Tequila, triple sec, lime and red pepper vinegar 8
Valentia, Vodka, sherry and caramelized orange 8

I hadn't heard of this restaurant or who was behind it, and the prices don't scream "celebrity mixologist," but I said to myself, I THINK THIS PERSON REALLY KNOWS WHAT THEY'RE DOING. (I always talk to myself in capslock.)

Back to the Tablehopper newsletter, I found that I was right- the menu was designed by Camber Lay, formerly of Frisson and Range. The clues I should have picked up were tea-infused vodka, and lime and red pepper vinegar. While other mixologists put together ingredients in new and fascinating ways, Camber is always creating weird new ingredients and techniques.

Last week I sat next to Deborah Parker-Wong, who writes for Tasting Panel Magazine (as do I now) at the El Tesoro Anniversario dinner at Slanted Door. Deborah has an amazing palate that I've witnessed at multiple tasting events. She was talking about blind tasting. "If you taste it when it's hot, when it's cold, in different glasses, when you're hungry, with food, in the morning- eventually, you just get it. So THAT's what [some brand of wine I'd never heard of] is all about."

I drink enough of these guys' cocktails in enough different situations that blind tasting cocktails sounds like a really fun challenge. Of course, it will involve much more "training of the palate," but luckily it's happy hour soon.

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