Do You Have The Palate Of A Highly Trained Bartender? Find Out In Anvil’s Blind Tasting Competition
Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston is known as one of the nation’s best cocktail bars, and that kind of reputation is not acquired through luck. An important aspect to its success is the rigorous, 12-stage bartender training program. The final test is correctly identifying a minimum of 47 spirits from a blind tasting of 50. Some of Anvil’s most loyal customers have asked to give the blind tasting a try, and now, they have an opportunity. “I would say we’ve had well over 100 guests and industry peers talk to us about it,” said proprietor Bobby Heugel. “This is a way to meet those requests and provide that experience for people in a manner that makes sense and is productive.”
On Sunday, January 8 from 2 to 5 p.m., 30 people will get to take on the challenge (possibly more if there’s overwhelming interest). Bar professionals (except current and former employees who have already gone through Anvil’s training) and spirits enthusiasts alike are welcome to compete. The entry fee is $55 per person and it is simply to cover the cost of putting on the competition. For the winner, there’s a $500 cash prize. Second place gets $200 and third gets $100.
Don’t for a minute think this will be an easy challenge, even for experienced drinkers. “I think everybody is aware of it being hard. I don’t know if they know how hard it is,” said Heugel. “Like, distinguishing the difference between Tanqueray and Beefeater [gins], right? It’s extremely challenging. You have to have a good enough palate to pick up the differences between Beefeater’s 12-hour infusion process and Tanqueray’s absence of a process and the six different botanicals that Beefeater uses that Tanqueray doesn’t.”
Another challenging aspect to the competition: distinguishing among four different vodkas. Vodka, by nature, is a relatively neutral spirit so the differences will be subtle. Heugel named the ones that will be part of the test, with an explanation as to the differences. “There’s Grey Goose, a French winter wheat vodka, Chopin, a Polish potato vodka, Absolut Elyx, which is also made with wheat but has a dramatically different texture and Aylesbury Duck, which also has a different texture and is Canadian. Each has a distinctly different profile and flavor, but, yeah, trying to name the difference in vodkas is extremely challenging. But, that’s what’s fun about this test.”
The real challenge, though, goes beyond identifying spirits. “The challenge in ID’ing the [spirits and] liqueurs is that your palate is getting wrecked!” said Heugel with a laugh. “That’s the real challenge. Taste 15 different spirits and then tell me which one is Suze and which is Chartreuse. That’s a little harder.”
The competition will be divided in two rounds. The first hurdle is to correctly name both the spirit and brand name of 20 pours selected from a list of 80 spirits and liqueurs. Eight to ten finalists will advance to a more difficult final round with 10 additional pours. Afterward, each entrant will receive a sealed copy of their results, including which spirits they did and did not correctly identify.
While results are being tabulated, there’s an extra dose of fun planned. Whether you’re a competitor or just an attendee, bring two shakers and strainers to help make what might be the world’s largest Ramos Gin Fizz. Everyone will shake their cocktails for ten minutes as a group, then strain their individual Ramos Gin Fizzes into a single gigantic glass vessel, which will then be topped with soda.
Visit Anvil Bar & Refuge’s Facebook page to check out the list of 80 possible spirits competitors will be tested on.
Preparation assistance available: participants will have the option to schedule a “practice round” before opening hours and will receive the details on how to arrange that when they enter.
Challenge accepted? Enter the competition by visiting Anvil Bar & Refuge in person at 1424 Westheimer. Also, hurry: there are now very few spots still available.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.