Who Makes the Best Cocktails in Vermont?

Last week, the top bartenders in the state faced off in Ludlow for a chance to be named the 2019 Vermont Bartender of the Year. Here’s what happened.

On March 26, six expert bartenders from across Vermont traveled to Ludlow to compete for the title of 2019 Vermont Bartender of the Year.

Held at Main + Mountain, a boutique motel and bar on Main Street, the competition’s final round was designed to test bartenders’ ability to multitask, think creatively about Vermont spirits on the spot and provide excellent service to three New England cocktail industry gurus: judges Andrew and Brianna Volk and Lauren Hayes.

The Volks are the authors of the cocktail recipe book Northern Hospitality and owners of Portland Hunt + Alpine Club, Little Giant and Giant in Portland, Maine. Portland Hunt + Alpine Club is a two-time James Beard Award finalist for “Outstanding Bar Program.”

Hayes is the general manager and wine director for Pammy’s, a New American Trattoria in Cambridge, Mass. that was named one of the Top 50 Best New Restaurants of 2018 by Bon Appetit. She is an expert sommelier.

Judges Brianna and Andrew Volk and Lauren Hayes order drinks from William Mordecai during the final round at Main + Mountain in Ludlow. Photo by Abagael Giles/VT Ski + Ride.

On Tuesday, each contestant was tasked with carrying out a service ticket for their guests (each was asked to bring five to the competition). Guests chose cocktails, beer and wine sponsored by Vermont producers from a small, curated menu that was shared with finalists in the days leading up to the event.

The drink list was pretty incredible. Cocktails for the competition included a Whiskey Old Fashioned featuring Silo Bourbon, a delicious Negroni made with oak-barrel-aged and raw-honey-infused Barr Hill Tom Cat Gin from Caledonia Spirits, as well as a daiquiri featuring Mad River Distillers PX Rum. Also on the menu was a Toronto with WhistlePig Farmstock 002 Rye Whiskey and

Josh Wilcox of Mad River Tasting Room in Burlington serves up a custom cocktail. Photo by Abagael Giles/VT Ski + Ride.

something called the Corpse Reviver #2, which featured Stonecutter Spirits Single Barrel Gin and a little absinthe, among other ingredients. For dessert, there was an Espresso Martini with Smugglers’ Notch Vodka and Saxton River Distillery Perc Coffee Liqueur.

Within a fixed time period, each bartender had to entertain the judges, who sat together at the packed bar, prepare their friends’ drinks in the proper order so as to prevent them from going flat or getting diluted and arrange to have them delivered to their table. In the midst of all that, judges grilled the contestant about Vermont spirits, wines and beers, their knowledge about the area where they work and local producers. And then, they put in their own drink orders.

The first was what folks in the industry call “a dealer’s choice,” where a bar guest gives the bartender a handful of ingredients and flavors that compel them and asks them to create a custom drink on the fly.

Then, the bartenders had to ask judges about their preferences for

The “menu” for the day at Main + Mountain. Photo by Abagael Giles/VT Ski + Ride

wine and beer and recommend a Vermont beer and a Vermont wine based on their answers.

Bartenders were judged according to their knowledge of Vermont products, their speed, their efficiency and their ability to provide quality service while multitasking. Questions ranged from inquiries about great places to eat and where to hike to what the music scene is like in the area where their bar is.

Emily Morton of Winooski, Bar Manager for Deli 126 in Burlington (which celebrates its one year anniversary on Thursday, April 4), rose to the top.

Over the course of one month, Morton competed against 45 fellow Vermont bartenders in three rounds to earn her title, making this year’s competition a little different than in years past, according to Vermont Bartenders Guild Secretary Neil Goldberg.

The first round was open to all Vermont bartenders and featured a timed written exam with 30 multiple choice questions covering beer, wine and cocktails. In the second round, held at Whistlepig’s Shoreham farm on March 4, 12 semi-finalists were tasked with creating one original cocktail featuring Whistlepig’s Farmstock 002,

Emily Morton puts the finishing touches on a cocktail at the 2019 Vermont Bartender of the Year Competition at Main + Mountain in Ludlow. Photo by Abagael Giles/VT Ski + Ride

a rye whiskey with unique tasting notes like orange zest, white chocolate and fresh pear in the nose and a spicy, full-bodied palate with a light and lengthy finish of white pepper and oak followed by notes of caramel and butterscotch. Bonus points were awarded for each Vermont ingredient included in the drink.

Morton entered the final round as a favorite, having won the semi-finals with her craft cocktail concoction.

Now, she is headed to the Vermont Tourism Summit on Thursday, where she will be presented with her official award as the 2019 Vermont Bartender of the Year, along with $500 in prize money.

A speakeasy-style bar accessed through a New York-style deli in downtown Burlington, Deli 126 has an extensive cocktail list packed with creative infusions and full of Vermont products. On a given night, they may serve more than 30 different hand-crafted drinks, many inspired by classic cocktails of the 1920s to match the bar’s prohibition-era jazz club vibe. As bar manager, it’s fair to say she’s the mastermind behind their creative offerings.

Morton had this to say to MyChamplainValley after learning she had won the competition: “My fellow competitors in this round are some of the best in Vermont, some of the best bartenders in the state who provide the most amazing service.”

Emily Morton showcases her skills at the 2019 Vermont Bartender of the Year Competition in Ludlow, Vt.

The six finalists at Tuesday’s event were as follows:

Emily Morton of Deli 126, Burlington

William Mordecai of Coleman Brook Tavern, Ludlow

Chelsea Harris of Pizzeria Verita, Burlington

Jackson Zieper of Monarch + the Milkweed, Burlington

Nadia Womble of Waterworks Food + Drink, Winooski

Josh Wilcox of Mad River Tasting Room, Burlington

The Top Three Finishers were:

  1. Emily Morton
  2. Josh Wilcox
  3. Jackson Zieper

The following made it to the semi-finals, where Ludlow had the most bartenders represented of any Vermont municipality except for Burlington (both had four contenders).

Jamie Pessoa Monteiro of Mama’s VT, Ludlow

Steven Kelly of Main + Mountain, Ludlow

Milo Ryerson of Pizzeria Verita, Burlington

Danny Childs of Homestyle Hostel, Ludlow

Matthew Branch of The Whip Bar and Grill, Stowe

Isaiah Donaldson of Waterworks Food + Drink, Winooski

Featured Photo Caption: A bartender at Main + Mountain squeezes fresh orange into a craft cocktail at the 2019 Vermont Bartender of the Year Finals in Ludlow on March 26. Photo by Lindsay Selin Photography.

Abagael Giles

Abagael Giles is the Assistant Editor at Vermont Ski + Ride Magazine. She loves free-heel skiing and exploring her home state of Vermont–one ridgetop at a time. Find her on Twitter at @AbagaelGiles.