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Some 75 attendees enjoyed fantastic cocktails, noshed on delicious food and learned a lot about mixology at the second annual Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Championship, held at the Purple Palm Restaurant at the Colony Palms Restaurant on Thursday, Jan. 25.

The five competing bartenders were given the task of making a special, brand new drink with the sponsor liquor, Crown Royal Bourbon Mash Blended Canadian Whisky. First, they had to make one-ounce sips for attendees, and then they had to make five full-sized drinks from the judges and the host, Jimmy Boegle, of the Coachella Valley Independent.

Hunter Broggi, a relative desert newcomer who works as a restaurant manager at Lulu California Bistro, was named this year’s champion thanks to his drink, Lulu’s Smokin’ Crown, beating a talented field that included Rob Nightingale, of Moxie Palm Springs; Bryan Palmer, of the Purple Palm; and last season’s champion, Sherman Chan, of TRIO Restaurant.

Rob Learned, of Giuseppes Palm Springs, was voted the Audience Favorite.

The judges—Leslie Barclay, of Southern Glazer/Pacific Wine and Spirits Of California; Brad Fuhr, of Gay Desert Guide; Chris Reutz, of the Desert AIDS Project; and Mike Thompson, of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert—gave high marks to all of the bartenders’ creations.

The event was sponsored by the Purple Palm Restaurant, Crown Royal Bourbon Mash Blended Canadian Whisky and Gay Desert Guide. The event’s beneficiaries are the Desert AIDS Project and the LGBT Community Center of the Desert.

Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Week continues at 12 bars and restaurants across the valley through Saturday, Jan. 27.

Scroll down to see some photos from the event, by Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Snapshot

When Trio Restaurant’s Sherman Chan walked into the Purple Palm Restaurant at the Colony Palms Hotel to compete in the first Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Championship on Nov. 17, she brought with her a secret weapon: an extensive culinary pedigree, including stints in the kitchens of multiple Michelin-star restaurants.

“I really appreciate cocktails’ flavor aspect,” she said. “It’s not just about booze; it’s about aromatics, everything.

Chan, 29, was born in Hong Kong, and has lived most of her life in big cities—Toronto, New York and the like. She’s always been intrigued by food, and was all set to study at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, she said. However, before she left, she was challenged by her mother to work in a kitchen for a month to make sure she enjoyed it.

“I was working with an old-school chef, and he said that I didn’t need culinary school; he’d teach me,” she said.

Chan wound up working at some of the world’s most renowned restaurants: L’atelier de Joel Robuchon (three Michelin stars); Caprice in Hong Kong (two Michelin stars); and the Restaurant at Meadowood in Napa Valley (three Michelin stars).

She came to the Coachella Valley in January 2012 to take a temporary job at the Parker Palm Springs, because the Restaurant at Meadowood was going through a month-long closure.

“I didn’t want to be on unemployment for a month,” she said.

She was only planning on staying for three months—in fact, she had her next job lined up in San Francisco. However, she became smitten with the desert.

“I love the weather, and it’s waaaaay cheaper to live here,” Chan laughed. “It’s a great place to live.”

She helped open the late, lamented Jiao, where she was a consultant and sous chef. Shortly thereafter, she started hankering for a chance to be in the front of the house, and she decided to take a job tending bar at Palm Desert Country Club.

“I thought I might as well start working the front of the house and see how it was,” Chan said, adding that the money is often better in the front. She actually started the process of moving behind the bar while she was in Napa, taking an online course from BarSmarts.

After Jiao, Chan spent time at a variety of well-respected local restaurants, in both the kitchen and at the bar—Escena, Tonga Hut, the Westin Mission Hills, Gyoro Gyoro Izakaya Japonaise, So.Pa at L’Horizon and Mastro’s Steakhouse.

In December 2015, she started working part-time at Trio. Turns out she’d found a home: The fun energy at Trio, she said, made her eventually quit another part-time job to work full-time there.

“In hospitality, it’s really easy to work in a lot of places where you don’t feel like you belong,” Chan said. “I am so happy I got the opportunity to work here. Plus, the business is expanding, and they treat the staff really well.”

At Trio, she’s added a lot of variety and nuance to the cocktail menu. She brought the Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Championship trophy to Trio with her “Bulleit Proof” drink, a combination of Bulleit Bourbon, grapefruit juice, honey syrup, lime, Peychaud’s bitters, ginger beer and rosemary.

“I really enjoy the whole bartending thing,” she said. “I get to create something and have guest interaction. It’s fun being a conductor of someone’s evening.”

Trio Restaurant is located at 707 N. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. For more information, call 760-864-8746, or visit triopalmsprings.com.

Published in Features & Profiles

Bartending competitions … are they a test of ability, or just a sideshow full of tricks and gimmicks?

This is a question I have debated for years—and now that I reside in California, I see bartending competitions everywhere. This isn't to say they don't exist back in my former home, Boston, but during my bar “upbringing,” the competition came every night behind the stick: We were earnest (mostly) tradespeople—just a little wilder, perhaps—and competitions seemed alien to us. We were drink-slingers, masters of ceremonies, psychologists and peacekeepers, and we had the final word on all debates. Then something happened all over the world: Bartenders started caring more about knowing obscure recipes, using showy techniques and developing complex cocktails. We rediscovered the craft, and—for better or worse—everything changed.

So this is 2016, and bartending is a sport—get used to it. It can be a pretty fun sport, too. I did my first bartending competition right here in Palm Springs. The first round included a mystery basket (basically like on the TV show Chopped), and I got knocked out early. To rub salt in the wound, it was on my home field, Seymour's, and I was the hyped “new guy in town.” That said, I had a great time and met some fantastic bartenders and enthusiasts, and I got to nerd out about drinks and techniques all night. Fast-forward to October, when I was invited to compete in a competition at Village Pub hosted by Templeton Rye Whiskey. This time, I did really well in the cocktail-creation round and moved on to the exhaustive final round against 11 other bartenders from all over the area. Five hours of events later, I finished fourth behind three of the best in the valley (David from Workshop; Chad from Bootlegger Tiki; and Patrick from Workshop). It was a blast hanging out with some great bartenders over (too many) shots of Jameson.

After all that, it was nice to just take it easy at the Coachella Valley Independent’s Craft Cocktail Championship on Thursday, Nov, 17. I was excited to meet some bartenders from outside of my usual circuit—and thrilled about visiting the Purple Palm at the Colony Palms, which had been on my list of places to visit for months. What a beautiful venue—exactly what I thought Palm Springs would be like before I ever came here. Sadly, the event and other obligations kept me from fully exploring the drink list (I will be back), but I managed to try the Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Week special: The very busy bartender, Jeff, made me the Bangkok Sling (created by bartender Brandon), and with a name like that, I looked forward to a combination of gin, liqueurs, citrus and soda. I was right about the gin (TRU Gin) and citrus (lemon), but the rest of the ingredients were guava purée, Thai basil, pink peppercorn and Fruitlab Hops Organic Liqueur. I tend to avoid drinks with purées, because they can easily overwhelm a cocktail, and I generally don't like the texture. However, this drink avoids that pitfall by bringing strong flavors to the party. The gin and hops hit first while the guava lingers, and the basil finishes strong. I am a pepper junkie, so I wish I’d gotten more of that, but all together, it was an unexpected and tasty cocktail.

The competition itself involved five local bartenders, each using a randomly assigned sponsor spirit. Fernando González (Cuistot) led off with his “Carolus’ Cobbler.” This was a blend of Nolet’s Silver Dry Gin, homemade peach purée, cinnamon and aromatic bitters. Two drinks with a purée in one night is a record for me, but this, too, was done well; Fernando put a lot of effort into the product and did his homework on the gin. Nolet’s has a fruitier and sweeter profile than a traditional London dry, with the addition of … guess what … peaches! I think a dash of something to temper the gin a bit (maraschino liqueur?) might have helped bring it all together, but he earned extra points for the homemade element, the research and the horse’s neck garnishes.

Kevin Helvie (Chill Bar and Scorpion Room) had the toughest spirit to work with, in my opinion. He mixed Crown Royal Vanilla, lemon, blueberry sour, tarragon and simple syrup into the “Royal Blue XL.” One of the judges put it best, saying it was “a good time in a glass.” It had the party-drink trinity of boozy, sweet and sour. It was also the favorite of many attendees. I was wondering the whole time what I would do with that spirit. Honey? Lemon? Ginger? Egg white? Heck, port? Luckily, I was just observing this time.

Michael Phillips (Fix a Dessert House) prepared a drink called “Citrus Rose” using Ketel One Oranj, fresh orange juice, local honey, homemade rose water, orange flower, rose sugar, a lime wedge and an edible flower. I wouldn't advise drinking it near a hive of killer bees, but I thought the floral focus was an intriguing and unique choice. It could have been overwhelming, but I found it to be nicely balanced and tasty. I also enjoyed hearing his story and about his passion for making drinks, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with next time.

The audience favorite was Joey Tapia (New York Company) and his “Mellow Melon.” Joey is relatively new to bartending, and he smartly kept it simple, with Captain Morgan White Rum, cantaloupe, fresh lime, muddled mint and sugar. The drink was light and tasty. From an aesthetic point of view, I might have fine-strained the mint out, but the Mellow Melon is the kind of drink that pushes bar sales. Simple can be good, too.

The champion was Sherman Chan (Trio), who came ready to rumble. Her spirit was Bulleit Bourbon, which some would say was the luckiest pull because of the wealth of bourbon cocktails from which to draw inspiration. Luck only gets you so far, though, and she clearly knew her stuff. She made a chimera of a “Brown Derby” (bourbon, honey syrup and lemon) and a “Kentucky Mule” (bourbon, ginger, citrus), with Peychaud’s Bitters and rosemary “straight out of Trio’s parking lot!” Despite the potential for a spit-take from the judges after that remark, Sherman rolled with emcee Shann Carr’s increasingly “blue” commentary with confidence and humor. She also brought “dragon balls”—round ice balls with herbs frozen into them. Word to the wise: Behind the bar, “the show” is almost as important as what you make. The drink itself, “Bulleit Proof,” was not just smoke and mirrors, though; it was extremely tasty. It’s debatable whether the “dragon balls” would be feasible for a busy bar program, but the drink itself would sell for sure.

How much does a contest truly reflect one’s worth as an elite bartender? Winning can get you fame, money, magazine features, gigs shilling for spirit brands, Instagram followers, guest spots on reality shows and so on, so I understand why some people devote so much time and energy to competing. Frankly, it's pretty much the only way to get noticed in our new culture of “Rock-Star Bartending” (unless you happen to work at a world-famous establishment), but that shouldn't be what it's all about. I guess it all comes down to staying grounded and having fun—taking it seriously, but not tying one’s worth to winning or losing.

My advice to bartenders: Give it your best if competing, and cheer your hardest if attending. Realize it's not always fair, that it's subjective, and that no contest will determine accurately how good a bartender is in one’s natural environment. Winning a competition and actually tending bar are two different skill sets. As with any skill, you have to practice. I will be better the next time I compete, if and when I do, and so will all of these competitors.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am off to practice flipping bottles and breathing fire.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Seymour’s/Mr. Lyons and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Published in Cocktails

Five of the Coachella Valley's top bartenders met Thursday night, Nov. 17, at the Purple Palm Restaurant at the Colony Palms Hotel to battle for the first Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Championship.

The event was one of the highlights of the Coachella Valley Independent's first Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Week, which ends tonight (Saturday, Nov. 19). 

One week before the event, the five contestants met at the Purple Palm for a draw to determine the order in which they would compete, and which of the five sponsor liquors they would use. The sponsor—Pacific Wine and Spirits of California—is donating $500 to each of Cocktail Week's charity beneficiaries: The LGBT Community Center of the Desert's Community Food Bank, and the Desert AIDS Project's Food Pantry.

Fernando Gonzalez of Cuistot Restaurant (using Nolet's Silver Dry Gin), Kevin Helvie of Chill Bar Palm Springs and Scorpion Room (using Crown Royal Vanilla), Sherman Chan of TRIO Restaurant (using Bulleit Bourbon), Michael Phillips of FIX a Dessert House (using Ketel One Oranj) and Joey Tapia of The New York Company Restaurant (using Captain Morgan White Rum) made tastes of their drinks for all attendees, who then each turned in a ballot with their favorite cocktail circled. Then the competition began in earnest, with each bartender mixing full-size drinks for each judge live while bantering with host Shann Carr.

The judges were Jonathan Heath of F10 Creative, Darrell Tucci of the Desert AIDS Project, Mike Thompson of the LGBT Community Center of the Desert, and Brad Fuhr of Gay Desert Guide.

After all of the drinks were made and tasted, and the results tabulated, Shann Carr announced the winners: Joey Tapia of the New York Company Restaurant won the Audience Choice Award, while Trio's Sherman Chan won the Championship.

Below is a gallery of photos by Independent photographer Kevin Fitzgerald.

Published in Snapshot

I became a fan of craft cocktails about five years ago thanks to a little speakeasy-style bar in Tucson, Ariz., called Scott and Co.

Before I visited Scott and Co., I didn’t really know—or, frankly, think—much about cocktails beyond whether I wanted my martini dirty or not, and what type of whiskey tasted best when mixed with Coke. But Scott and Co. opened my eyes to the fact that drinks can have just as much flavor and nuance as any well-prepared entrée.

I learned that ice matters—both in shape and size. I learned that ingredients don’t have to be rote: One can create amazing syrups, bitters and spice mixtures to pair with good liquors. I learned that things like smoke and herbs and gratings and oils can do wondrous things when mixed in the right portions. I learned that truly talented bartenders don’t even need liquor to concoct delicious drinks; after all, non-drinkers deserve good cocktails, too.

In short, I fell head over heels in love with craft cocktails.

That’s why we here at the Independent decided to create Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Week: We want to spread the word about our area’s amazing craft cocktails, being created and tweaked and honed by bartenders and mixologists at bars and restaurants large and small, in every part of the Coachella Valley.

However, we also think that with good cocktails come big responsibility: All Craft Cocktail Week participants were required to agree that they would “promote safe and responsible alcohol consumption throughout the week by offering special non-alcoholic drinks, encouraging designated drivers and the use of taxis/ride-share services, and doing all (they) can to make sure customers are enjoying Palm Springs Craft Cocktail Week responsibly.”

We also think it’s important to give back to the community. That’s why at least $2 from every special cocktail offered during Craft Cocktail Week at participating bars and restaurants will be split between two amazing local nonprofits that make sure ALL of our valley’s residents never go hungry: The LGBT Community of the Desert’s Community Food Bank, and the Desert AIDS Project Food Pantry.

At PSCraftCocktails.com, you’ll find information on what this year’s Craft Cocktail Week participants are offering—and what they’re giving back. You’ll also find details on the week’s two big cocktail competitions. Keep an eye on the website for updates, late-joining participants and information as it develops.

While we're talking about cocktails, make sure to check out the debut of the Independent’s new monthly craft-cocktail column, written by Kevin Carlow.

Join us from Nov. 11-19 at these amazing bars and restaurants to celebrate the art of the craft cocktail. Enjoy.

Published in Editor's Note