When Masahara Urushido, bar manager of Saxon + Parole (NYC) and one of the judges for the Chivas Masters Cocktail Competition approached Ben Rojo (Angel’s Share, NYC) about entering the competition, Rojo says, it came at the exact right time. He had never been in a true competition before, but even before starting to really work on the three drinks that would eventually help him bring home the championship, he was excited.
“It was something I was feeling. I was in a very creative phase,” Rojo says.
It was also something, he added, that was close to his heart, as he grew up familiar with the brand.
“I knew Chivas as my grandfather’s brands. Both of my grandfathers drank Chivas pretty much exclusively when I was a kid,” he says.
Each of the competition’s three cocktails had a different theme: one was to be based on the classics, one based on the bartender’s local market, and one inspired by Chinese cuisine and culture, as the final took place in Shanghai. According to Rojo, the three ideas came pretty quickly.
The first drink he created, based on a classic, was easiest for Rojo. He created a riff on the Rusty Nail, which was a callback to the first cocktail he ever made.
“I made Rusty Nails for my grandfathers, who didn’t get along all that much outside of drinking, but they’d drink their Chivas on the rocks or in a Rusty Nail together,” he says.
Following that, he based his New York City cocktail on the elements he attributes to helping him — and countless other New Yorkers — get through the day: cold brew coffee and coconut water. For his third cocktail, he drew inspiration from his family and heritage, creating a cocktail he called the Last Lantern — a nod to celebrations that occur before the Chinese New Year.
Another inspiration for his drinks, Rojo said, was the nineteenth century French Catholic poet Charles Baudelaire. Famous for the poem “Be Drunk,” among others, Baudelaire’s approach to life was something that Rojo channeled into his drinks.
While working on the cocktails — trying recipes, tweaking, testing on friends and family, and tweaking again — one of the biggest things Rojo came to learn is the intimate connection between creating food and creating drinks. Many of the same principles that would guide a meal creation guide his own process as well.
“We draw so much from culinary tradition especially now. I’m sure there are exceptions, but it seems that if you can’t cook you can’t make a decent drink,” he says. “Training your palate and being mindful of balance is a universal skillset. Whether you’re making a meat sauce or a daiquiri, there’s a ton of interplay between the different components. There’s so much we can learn from chefs.”
Further, he says, this helped him visualize his drinks, which he says helped to strengthen them in the long run. In his own mind, this took the shape of a thread, connecting one ingredient to the next to the next — a cocktail string theory of sorts.
The competition, too, offered Rojo the chance to work amongst some of the best bartenders in the United States, as well as the world. This experience, he says, was amazing, as it allowed him to not only see a wide variety of techniques and styles, but to make great friends in the process.
“Stylistically, we were all super different, but the commonality of what we were all trying to do — to make great Chivas cocktails — was inspirational.”
In reflecting on the competition and everything he learned, Rojo says there are three major pieces of advice he would give to bartenders entering the competition this year. First, be yourself.
“Draw inspiration from your experience and surroundings. Speak from your heart — you do it everyday anyway. Everyone has probably made a Manhattan or a Negroni and that’s important, but find your voice within the context of that,” he says. “There’s no one in this world quite like you as an individual. Use that.”
Second, it’s incredibly important to test out your drinks before you submit them.
“So many ideas I’ve had have seemed great in my mind, but it wasn’t until I tinkered with them that they really became great. Take the time to bounce the drinks off friends, coworkers, regulars, your roommates — whoever. Really do yourself the favor of putting forth the best version of your recipe that you can.”
Finally, Rojo says, have fun with it.
“It’s such an excellent opportunity, and it’s given me so much more than I ever could’ve expected. Approach it with the same glee that you do making your favorite drink for your favorite guest. The reason we do this is because it’s rewarding and it’s satisfying to make people happier. Channel that.”
Learn more about the Chivas Masters Cocktail Competition (and enter to compete) here.