Being invited to judge a cocktail competition called “The Worst of the Worst” at Hammer Workshop & Bar was accepted with as much hesitation as it was excitement. “Surely eight of O.C.’s best bartenders won’t try to kill me with horrible booze,” I thought. These incredibly talented people hopefully have the innate ability to polish a turd…that turd being booze infused with things that should be illegal.
At the judge’s table, I’m happy to be joined by chef Carlos Salgado from Taco María and noted cocktail nerds Dave Lieberman and Alejandro Pareja. Our faces look terrified as we’re passed a bottle of activated charcoal pills and a box of teddy bear head crayons to take score. “What’s the charcoal for?” I ask. “It’ll help absorb some of the sugary booze you’ll be drinking from sixteen drinks!” says Lucie Wood, bar manager at Hammer. Being a Monday night, I pop two without question.
The box of booze, as it were, is filled with bottles of various low to mid proof concoctions; things like Cinnabun, bubble gum, and buttered popcorn vodkas are just a few that I peeked. Tequila infused with agave sugar is also apparently a thing. Why?!?
The first drink of the competition is a Frappachino and Cinnabun vodka concoction by barman Paul from Orange Hill. Served in a Starbucks bottle and garnished with a sprig of mint, the drink is incredibly sweet, however I could see the Ugg boot-yoga pants crew enjoying it. I spot a girl at the end of the bar wearing just that and gave her a sip for confirmation, “O.M.G. this is so delicious!” she says. I let her keep it, and moved on to the next fifteen.
Four rounds and eight cocktails later, we have our top four bartenders moving on to a sabotage round, where each contender picks the spirit for the other to use. First to go is Brandon from nFuse vs. Joel from Pizzeria Ortica, next is (not yet opened) Vacation Bar’s Emily vs. Allan from Orange Hill. I don’t remember much after this point, aside from diabetic shock from all the sweetness at the judges table. The final four were drinkable, “maybe in college or a cruise ship,” says judge Alejandro. Agreed, the last time I had Rumple Minze was at least twenty years ago. In a drink, it can turn anything into minty Listerine, which would have been the perfect name for one of Emily’s last drinks.
The spectating crowd is loud going into the final round, and I’ve never been this excited to stop drinking ever! Emily Delicce vs. Joel Caruso go head to head with eight minutes on the clock. I score them a tie, but after some serious deliberation, we agree Emily’s potent potable a winner. I belch a flavor that best can be described as a 31 Flavors, wipe the sweat from my furrowed brow, and stumble home. Uggh.