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How I Drank (And Judged) 16 Bloody Marys

Ed Brill sampled 16 unique Bloody Marys at Highwood's third annual Bloody Mary Fest on Sunday.

It may be a while before I can look tomato juice in the face.

On Sunday, I had the privilege and honor of joining the judging panel at Highwood's third-annual Bloody Mary Fest. This year's event featured more than two dozen vendors, including 16 contestants in the formal contest for best Bloody Mary. The competition was fierce, but Gabe's Backstage Lounge won the judging for the second year in a row; Highwood newcomer Toadstool Lounge picked up the People's Choice Award.

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The judging panel included three event veterans -- ABC TV's Steve Dolinsky, Pioneer Press's Lee Litas, Make It Better's Julie Chernoff -- along with sponsor Chuck Weisberg of Van Gogh Vodka.  I was seated next to Chernoff, who kindly coached me through the judging process. Her most important rule was to limit intake from each cocktail, since we had 16 to judge altogether. Plus, the flavor of a Bloody Mary -- tomato juice, lemon juice, vodka, and various spices -- is pretty consistent from top to bottom in the glass.

I felt like a bit of an impostor when I showed up Sunday to join the judging. I had literally just gotten off a plane from Europe, after 11 days on the road for my day job and vacation in Italy, Qatar, Dubai and Scottsdale. Jet lag and alcohol don't normally mix well, but it was for a good cause. More to the point, all the other judges make their living in the food and beverage space, whereas I just write an occasional column about a good meal.

The scoring covered several criteria, including the taste of the cocktail itself, presentation, the garnish, spice, color and texture. The Bloody Mary lends itself to creativity, since every bartender can put together their own palette of spices and garnishes to populate the drink.The fest becomes quite a "who can top this" competition, and some of the glasses set in front of us resembled salad bars more than they did cocktails.

We were served everything from a very classic concoction with only a celery stalk and some olives, to a "sushi mary" garnished with California Roll and a "seafood mary" with a marinated shrimp and a crab claw. Pork products were often used as part of the garnish, including bacon, sausage, and prosciutto. One cocktail was called "ain't no thing but a chicken wing". Another was piled high with dozens of fresh vegetables, cheeses and pickles. By about entrant number 14, I was feeling stuffed from all the garnishes, and I had barely eaten any of them.

The actual drinks had a wide variety on the taste spectrum. Some were sweet, some were spicy and some landed a nice mix in-between. There was a definite difference between freshly-made cocktails and those that used mixes. The brightness of the drink was clearer and the spices more blended in many of the local contestants. Some of the mixes were nice too, including Stu's This is Bloody Mary dry mix, but the local competitors mostly bested the pre-made concoctions.

We had judged several entries already when Highwood's Tap House grill came by with hurricane glasses filled with a beautiful deep red hue. Visible within was fresh horseradish, a great ingredient for a Bloody Mary. Though we judges had been quick to move on from earlier drinks, most of us held onto the Tap House glass for just a little while longer, coming back to it as a measuring stick while sampling subsequent libations.

That was until Jorge from Gabe's Backstage Lounge appeared, with a tray of smoking dry ice and the craziest looking beverages. Seafood, vegetables, pickles all graced this deep red cocktail. The eventual winner didn't win just by being luxurious, though. Gabe's used fresh cilantro in their Bloody Mary, and it was incredibly refreshing. Even in a blind taste test, this concoction stood out.

There were so many great attempts at uniqueness. Bridie McKenna's topped their excellent Bloody Mary with a Guinness beer floater, and served us a chaser of lager as well. One entrant perhaps was trying to win the people's choice award by staffing their festival booth with attractive women in short shorts and big smiles. Isaac from Casa de Isaac actually mixed cocktails right in front of the judges, using a little cactus juice as his secret ingredient. Many talked about how they pickled their own vegetables or made their own brine or smoked their own bacon. 

After more than two hours of drinking, the scores were tabulated and trophies awarded. I went home to find the Pepto Bismol and prepare for a 6 a.m. flight back out of the country. Luckily, the memories will last much longer than the indigestion. I had a great time being part of Highwood's Bloody Mary Festival. Thank you to the City of Highwood, Ripple Public Relations, Van Gogh Vodka, and my fellow judges for making it a great afternoon.

I'll let you all know when the detox is complete.

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