SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego Spirits Festival takes place bayside on June 25–26 at the Port Pavilion on Broadway Pier. San Diego's best bartenders will be shaking, stirring and pouring their way through three battles leading up to the festival - the "Uptown Battle," the "Coastal Battle" and the "Downtown Battle."
The "Uptown Bartender Battle" took place on Tuesday, March 1, at Hillcrest's Eden, and Mike Yen of Avenue 5, the 2010 Spirits Festival winner, was back to defend his title.
Yen, 37, emerged victorious once again, taking home first place with his unique margarita concoction -"Asians Driving a Cadillac." Of his victory, he said, "It is always an honor when the fruition of your creativity and labor find favorable results. Inspiration for a cocktail can come from so many sources - the name, the ingredients, the vessel.
"You then take that seed and nurture it alongside other ideas until the final product grows into place. When that seed actually comes around to bear fruit, it's gratifying. However, this was especially humbling, considering the judges were not regular people, but peers I hold in the highest respect."
Below he shares his winning recipe with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, discusses his inspiration, life as a bartender, and the upcoming festival.
"My creation is a spin-off of a Cadillac margarita, with Asian components, like yuzu, ginger and aloe driving the flavor," Yen explained. "So because I am mostly Asian and I was the 'driver' behind this Cadillac concept, I named it 'Asians Driving a Cadillac.'
"A lot of my inspiration comes from heralded chefs, like Heston Blumenthal. I also take pride in employing a lot of technique into my craft, as well as Blumenthal's whimsical approach to illusion. My cocktail looked like a dirty martini (the 'olive' was actually a hollowed out grape filled with blood orange/grand marnier spherification), but tasted nothing like it.
"I've found that the most endearing and memorable experiences often come when they are not expected. I love bartending, because I love artistic expression and it's a great outlet for it."
Although Yen represented Avenue 5 in the competition, his winning cocktail creation is not on the menu; however, if you wish to have him make one for you, you can find him at Avenue 5 on most Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights.
A San Diego transplant by way of Palos Verdes near Los Angeles where he was born and raised, Yen first moved to San Diego years ago to attend UCSD.
As a bartender, he has been honing his craft for 14 years. He spent six years at Nine-Ten in La Jolla, and before that, he also poured drinks at The Lodge Torrey Pines and the Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines.
"I currently also fill in a couple shifts at Oceanaire, downtown. I also work private and corporate events on the side," Yen said. "I like working at Avenue 5 though, because I have a lot of creative freedom and the chef/owner(s) share the same goals and dreams that I do."
Yen has heard his share of pick-up lines in those 14 years, and although he says a line is only considered "corny" if it does not work, he thinks "every line is corny." He did, however, give props to the guy who once had his Ferrari visibly parked in front of the bar, and asked, "Want to go for a ride in my Ferrari?"
Mojitos are what he is asked to make most often, and he's not sure why people keep asking for cappuccino's in a place like San Diego, but he wishes they'd stop.
He's had some wild requests, as well.
"I worked a private party where I was asked to make various molecular concepts," Yen said. "One of them was Viagra Jell-O shots. I made them for the party but didn't stick around to see what happened after they were served!"
If Yen were a drink, he said he would be an aged whiskey served neat, because he is clean, hearty, sometimes made from rice, and the perfect companion to take fishing. Pour yourself some whiskey in his honor, or try his winning creation below.
Mike Yen's first-place recipe: "Asians Driving a Cadillac"
2 ounce of Milagro silver tequila
1 ounce of Yuzu juice (filtered*)
1 ounce of aloe juice (filtered*)
half-ounce of lime juice (filtered*)
quarter-ounce of St. Germain elderflower liqueur
quarter-ounce of Milagro agave nectar
2 slices baby ginger
swab blood orange perfume (1)
1 Cadillac "olive" (2)
Swab rim of chilled cocktail glass with blood orange "perfume." Set aside.
Combine agave nectar and St. Germain in a cocktail tin with two slices of freshly sliced baby ginger.
Muddle ginger to release flavor.
Add remaining fluid ingredients and a scoop of ice.
Shake until chilled and strain into the prepared martini glass.
Garnish with speared "olive."
* = Filter components with grade 203 filter paper and a Buchner Flask
1 = Use a microplane to zest six blood oranges. Cover and soak zest in a cup of Grand Marnier overnight. Empty contents into a small sauce pan and boil down until only oils and sugars remain. Press remaining zest to extract any oils and flavors.
2 = Hollow out a white grape. Inject a mixture of fresh blood orange juice and Grand Marnier that has been infused with calcium lactate. Submerge grape into a sodium alginate bath and allow gelatin barrier to form and seal in fluid contents, about 8-10 minutes.
Third annual San Diego Spirits Festival
Yen began competing about a year ago, and although he goes into each competition with a lot of confidence, he shared that once he gets started, he tends to second-guess everything.
"I'm like a lion that's scared of his own shadow," Yen said. "For this year's final competition, I have some ideas, but need to work out some final touches before I narrow it down. My technique and style will probably be the focus of the concept, because I love putting my creativity up on display and seeing what my peers are up to at the same time."
When asked why San Diegans should support this festival, Yen said, "Liz Edwards continues to make improvements to the San Diego Spirits Festival every year. It is a tremendous experience for locals to get in touch with both new product and the new talent that fill our neighborhood bars.
"There are also several unique opportunities to take in each day. Last year, I gave a seminar on molecular mixology, which is something you rarely encounter unless you are in Chicago or New York."
The San Diego Spirits Festival takes place Bayside on June 25–26, 2011. Its new 52,000 square foot venue -- the Port of San Diego's first "green" building -- features a modern glass structure and offers commanding views of San Diego’s breathtaking waterfront.
The two-day event will focus on competitions, tastings, seminars and parties sponsored by a growing lineup of national spirit brands and local restaurants who astutely support San Diego’s up-and-coming cocktail community.
A full schedule of events will lead up to the festival, including the first-ever San Diego Cocktail Week (June 20-24), which will highlight sponsoring brands in craft cocktails at San Diego’s best bars – a way to truly to showcase the talented bartenders who are shaking up this new and vibrant cocktail scene.
Each month, the city will be the host to neighborhood Bartender Battles and bi-monthly Chef/Bartender Shakedowns in search of the brightest bar and culinary talent the city has to offer. The winners will compete in June at the ultimate battle and shakedown at the Festival.
The "Coastal Bartender Battle" takes place on Monday, April 11, at Tower 23 Hotel in Pacific Beach, and the "Downtown Bartender Battle" takes place in May at one of the first spots in San Diego to "ROCK" cocktails.
Tickets vary in cost, depending days attended and VIP packages. They range from $75 to $175, but early-bird pricing is available through May, 31 for $50 - $130. They may be purchased by calling (888) 559-2577 or online.