By Lenore T. Adkins, Special to the AFRO
Nine of D.C.’s most prominent Black bartenders got their chance to shine and sling their signature drinks at the inaugural Chocolate City’s Best Cocktail Competition, an event that gave them a forum to network and feel appreciated.
As part of the competition, which took place Sept. 24 at Big Chief, six mixologists threw down in front of three judges for the top crown, while three bartenders competed for the People’s Choice Award.
Cocktail Come Up, a new organization helmed by Reliable Tavern bartender Kapri Robinson, launched the event to highlight the Black bartenders in the District who Robinson contends aren’t getting their due.
“It’s giving a chance for the D.C. industry to come out and support us,” Robinson told the AFRO. “It’s not an event just for us, it’s for everyone to build up everybody.”
Bartenders had seven minutes to mix their drinks and explain the story and science behind them.
Each cocktail had a story related to the Black experience.
Drew Hairston, beverage manager of Dirty Habit, made a drink he called the “Que Sera Sera,” which included cachaça, Brazil’s national drink.
The sweet spirit is derived from sugar cane that African slaves harvested when slavery was legal in Brazil. Slaves drank cachaça to kill the pain from their labor and energize themselves to do even more work in the sugar mills.
Private events bartender Denaya Jones, 27, won the main competition with her cocktail “Black Sheep,” a drink she concocted from Santa Teresa 1796 rum, Amaro liqueur, Cabernet Sauvignon wine, Yuzu bitters and orange peel.
The drink’s name, she said, is emblematic of her experience as a young, Black female bartender in the District. Jones has been in the industry for five years, but says she feels like an outcast most of the time.
Jones said she opted not to renew her membership in the D.C. Craft Bartenders Guild because she often felt like an outsider at its meetings and functions.
“Thankfully, I don’t mind solitude,” Jones said, adding that her passion for the industry propels her to keep pushing.
In a statement emailed to the AFRO, guild president Andrea Tateosian, said Jones never brought her concerns to Tateosian, other board members or any other third party.
And while the guild doesn’t collect demographic information for its more than 200 members, none of its four elected board members is Black, Tateosian said.
Taqueria del Barrio bartender Chris Martino, meanwhile, scored the contest’s People’s Choice award with “All Black Everything,” his take on a “Lion’s Tail,” a classic bourbon cocktail.
Martino’s version included Leblon cachaça, San Teresa rum, lime juice, vanilla syrup and orange juice, giving it the feel of a rum punch.
“It’s … my back pocket cocktail where I can make it on the fly because it has so many layers of flavor I can tailor it to the guest in front of me,” Martino, 32, said of the “Lion’s Tail.”
Winning the people’s choice award gave Martino vindication over all of the people who have underestimated him and shows the community that Black bartenders are just as talented as everyone else — they just need opportunities.
“This shows the depth and the breadth of what we can do,” Martino told the AFRO. “We know just as much as everybody else. Sometimes even more.”
All of the event’s proceeds, which was about $484, went to Distant Relatives, a D.C. nonprofit that builds schools in Africa and the Caribbean while feeding local homeless people.