It wasn’t just a cocktail competition.
Yes, the recent Chef vs. Bartender event at Thunderbird pitted owner and award-winning bartender Joshua Gonzales and his team against James Beard semifinalist chef Aaron Butts and his team from Joseph Decuis restaurant in Roanoke.
And, yes, there was plenty of trash talking and plenty of booze flowing. The $50-per-person event included three rounds of competition, with drinks spotlighting either Starlight Gin, Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal or Journeyman Whiskey.
Gonzales and bartenders Devon Boyll and Roger Gross each made a cocktail that was judged against one featuring the same spirit made by Butts or chef Sean Richardson of Joseph Decuis. Attendees could taste the individual spirits and received a sample portion of each cocktail and then voted for their favorite in each category.
But beyond the friendly competition – won in two out of three rounds by team Thunderbird – the event also served as the launch party for the newly formed Indiana Craft Beverage Association. The new not-for-profit, formed by a group of local beverage professionals and led by wine and spirits expert Arthur Black, is a statewide initiative, he said.
The goal of events such as the Chef vs. Bartender competition, Black said, is to highlight the work being done by industry professionals around the state.
“We do have the talent,” Black said. “It’s something to be really proud of. We just need more Hoosiers to get it.”
Butts, an award-winning chef who is active in the Indiana food community, said he appreciated the chance to learn more about craft cocktails.
“I think it’s another avenue of the experience, of the service industry,” he said. “I know the wine, I know the food. I’m just trying to learn more about it, to see what goes on behind the bar.”
And just as the dining public has embraced local food, Gonzales said, he wants people to know that “there’s also an equivalent on the spirits side. We’ve embraced the food side, and it’s time for us to start embracing the bar side.”
To that end, the new craft beverage association will be sponsoring events such as an Indiana cocktail week.
“It’s really important for us to think about moving forward with a craft cocktail week in the next year because we have such incredible talent in the city right now,” Gonzales said. “The take-away from this is to understand that the craft beverage scene in Indiana is very special. It’s reaching a point where, nationally, people are starting to become aware of what we’re doing.” — Jolene Ketzenberger