On any given night, vodka flows fast at gay bars, usually as one humble half of a vodka soda. On Saturday, June 13, Key West’s Bourbon Street Pub hosted and LGBT bartending competition, where 14 LGBT mixologists elevated the liquor at the 2015 Key West Cocktail Classic.
For the previous two months, Stoli conducted contests in 14 North American regions from Vancouver to Miami, selecting one finalist from each to present their craft cocktail to a panel of celebrity judges during sunny, sweaty, sultry Key West’s Pride weekend. Matthew Mellow of San Francisco’s Beaux presented his Forbidden Fruit, and the panel of four celebrity judges named it the country’s best.
That panel included Latoya London of American Idol, underwear designer Andrew Christian, noted Key West drag queen Sushi (she’s famously dropped in a giant high heel each New Year’s Eve), and writer/performer/comedian Bruce Vilanch. Jai Rodriguez of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy co-hosted with Patrik Gallineaux, LGBT ambassador to Stoli.
As winner, Mellow was named a grand marshal of the Key West Pride parade the following afternoon. Additionally, Stoli will donate $5,000 to a charity of his choice, which was being finalized at press time. Mellow’s home bar, Beaux, is a cocktail lounge by day, nightclub by night. In the earlier hours, Mellow says, bartenders mix “craft cocktails like muddled martinis with blackberries, mint, basil.” Later, the DJs and go-go boys come out and while the drink trend simpler, bartenders will still muddle blackberries for your craft order.
Mellow’s cocktail, the Forbidden Fruit, uses Stoli Gala Apple, Domaine de Canton (a ginger liqueur), fresh lemon, and earning his mettle as more than a vodka-soda slinger, “a lavender essence I infused.” It’s simple, he says: “Just take rosewater, put lavender in it, boil it and let it simmer, and strain out the lavender. Simple.” (Mellow and I have different ideas of simple.) Floral, sweet and balanced, the judges decided it was worth risking exile from Eden to name it the winner.
As a Stoli-produced competition, all the drinks were vodka based; however, no competitor had trouble using the liquor in high-end craft drink with it as a base. Shantel Grant is a mixologist at Brooklyn’s Forrest Point, a “swanky cocktail club” where she says gays, lesbians and straights mix fluidly. (It’s very Brooklyn.) She sees vodka as a new spirit category, one that’s been hiding in plain sight during the recent boom of brown liquors. Her drink, Sunglasses and Sandals (beauty themes were in, given the Key West milieu), mixed Stoli Premium (“It can do anything”) with pineapple and black pepper, an ingredient several bartenders were using. Grant was competing for ArtStart.
All the bartenders demonstrated a passion for their charities. Like Tommy Snyder of the Stonewall Moose Lounge in Philadelphia. He competed for for Joshua’s Future of Promises, a charity created to help people like his boyfriend’s nephew who has a genetic disease leading to soft tissue being calcified into bone. Snyder worked Joshua into his presentation.
Patrik Gallineaux points out that this is exactly the kind of community-building he saw in Stoli that led him to sign on as its LGBT ambassador. And he explained that our gay bartenders – that is, bartenders of any sexuality working in a gay bar, and gay bartenders working in bars for any sexuality – are an important part of our community, and the point of The Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic is to show our appreciation for these people.
Obviously, gay bars bring power to our local markets and serve as entry points to a city’s gay life. But more than that, Gallineaux recognizes our bartenders keep us safe. As we get drunk, it’s our bartenders who keep an eye on us. As we get too drunk, it’s our bartenders who cut us off (with love) and send us home. And, of course, gay bartenders have been charged with the special job throughout history of protecting us from those targeting gay bars with homophobic agendas. Gallineaux concedes that as we achieve the equality we’ve been working toward, things will inevitably become more homogeneous. But, gays will always be a minority, and gay bars will remain unique and necessary gathering places; Gallineaux, with Stoli’s backing, wish to honor and preserve their necessity.
The 14 bartenders Gallineaux and his team assembled in Key West do this day-to-day work with aplomb while also being engaging and entertaining and while also making creative, impressive drinks. The entertainment factor was demonstrated by the crowd who gathered to watch the finals. The event started as a storm passed – because Florida – though quickly gathered a large crowd on Duval Street. Though it lasted just shy of two hours at primetime Saturday of Pride weekend, the crowd never thinned, thanks to Gallineaux’s vamping, Bruce Vilanch’s dirty little bons mots, and of course, the bartenders’ unique personalities.
Gallineaux points out the official motto of Key West is “One human family.” Between the contestants and their judges, Patrik Gallineaux and his team at Stoli, and the many locals and vacationers who gathered on Duval Street, that family is a happy one.
Last modified: September 12, 2018