Jessica Taylor, lead bartender at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, is in New York City this weekend to participate in the CHOPPED Best Bloody Mary Brunch competition at the New York Wine and Food Festival. I caught up with Jessica before she left to find out a few details on the competition, how it all works and what she’s been up to.
So tell me about the competition.
This is through Chopped and Absolut, and it’s a bloody mary competition. So you design a recipe for a blody mary. You submit that recipe to the website, and there is a voting period that takes place and, based on votes, they decide a winner for each state. So this year, as well as two previous years, I was fortunate enough to win state, and then from there they have a panel of judges who go over each state winner, and they narrow it down to 12 finalists. And this year I was chosen as one of the finalists. So I will be in New York City competing live on Oct. 18.
Were you surprised?
It’s incredible. It was the last thing I expected, that was for sure. I didn’t even finish reading the email because I thought it couldn’t be real. I was shocked, to say the least, but I’m super excited.
How’d you come up with the recipe?
Every year I enter I try to do something different. I don’t want to just recycle a previous recipe. So this year I really wanted to think out of the box, especially because in our town cocktails are a very different thing now than they used to be a few years ago. They’re elevated. Competition is a lot harder these days. So this year I opted to do something completely different. I used yellow heirloom tomato juice. I used some yellow bell pepper juice, some celery juice. I used a celery shrub and Absolut vodka, of course, and Suze, which is a bitter aperitif made from gentian root, and a little bit of my homemade Thai bitters. So it does not look like a bloody mary at all but, surprisingly, it tastes very reminiscent of a bloody mary. It’s a little more acidic. It’s got a different kind of heat than a typical bloody mary, since there’s no horseradish in there, but the Thai bitters really give it a kick.
What does it look like?
Almost all the vegetables I used are yellow, so the bloody mary itself is bright, bright yellow. In my opinion, I think that part of the reason the judges picked it is it’s something different. So I just use a juice extractor, extract all my juices fresh, and I use my homemade Thai bitters. And the Suze is bright yellow as well, so I think that all of those things just happened to pair really well together, and I came up with something really unique.
How does the competition work?
I fly into New York on the 17th , and then at 8 o’clock in the morning on the 18th I will go to the venue – it’s at the New York Wine and Food Festival – and I have about four hours to prepare. I have to batch cocktails for, I think, 500 guests. And then I will compete live and make the full cocktail for the judges. I think there’s about five judges or so. And then make their decision, and then we get to go to the after party with a bunch of celebrity chefs. I know Geoffrey Zakarian is one of them, so I’m really, really excited.
Do you have to source everything there?
I probably will be taking a few of my items with me, like my Thai bitters. I have a great relationship with Wilks & Wilson, and they have been helping me bottle my Thai bitters lately. So I’ll be taking things like that. As far as the celery and the peppers and the tomatoes, I will probably just source all that when I get there. And the competition has agreed to provide me with a citrus juicer and a juice extractor, so that I can make that happen.
You’ll be making enough for hundreds of cocktails — is that daunting?
As far as the batching is concerned, I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of experience with that lately. I did Popfest, which is a great cocktail week in Kansas City. I was the only one from Indiana who was selected to go. At that event I was a “pop,” which is a purveyor of potables. I was responsible for juicing all the juice for each contestant, making all the garnishes for the contestants, things like that. That day I made 800 citrus twists alone, which doesn’t sound like it would be that crazy, but it took hours. It was insane. My hands smelled like orange and lemon zest for days . It would not come off, but it was kind of awesome . So that whole week I got great exposure as far as batching cocktails. I batched cocktails for seven days straight for anywhere from 20 to 100 attendees for seminars.
And then after the New York event, you’re off to Portland Cocktail Week — you’re really getting to a lot of events.
This year I kind of just told myself that I was going to take a year to travel and do all the things that I’ve wanted to do every year and have either just been too scared or kind of made an excuse here and there — I had to work or it was expensive. So this year, I just didn’t make any excuses. I’ve been to nearly every cocktail event I could possibly make it to. I did Portland Cocktail Week last fall. I did Popfest. I did an event for Cleveland Cocktail Week. I did an event for St. Louis Cocktail Week. I’ve tried to make it out to just every event I can and see what everyone else is doing, what the different markets are doing. And it’s been amazing.