The annual National Restaurant Association (NRA) rolled into town this past weekend, taking over McCormick Place. The NRA Show floods the massive lakeside convention center with exhibitors, hawking their wares and services to and networking with fellow industry professionals. On Sunday night, though, the focus of the NRA Show moved to the multi-level River North nightclub the Castle, which played host to the finals of the show's Star of the Bar mixology competition, amid a capacity crowd of reveling show attendees and a judging panel that included Anthony Bourdain.
The contest begins weeks before the NRA Show with an open call to pro and amateur mixers alike to produce a video of themselves creating, and explaining how to create, an original cocktail that features the annual competition's sponsor liquor. This year the spirit was American Harvest Organic Spirit, a vodka from Idaho. Star of the Bar contestants are whittled down by NRA officials to three finalists, who then mix their drinks live before the judges and a huge audience in hopes of taking home a $5,000 prize.
Along with Bourdain, the judging panel was made up by the well-known bartender and author Tony Abou-Ganim, as well as Todd Richman, corporate mixologist at Sidney Frank Importing Co., the supplier of American Harvest vodka.
The finalists hailed from the coasts this year. Steve Schneider, who won with a drink he named the "Dean," bartends at Employees Only, in New York. In what the judges claimed was a very tight race, Schneider bested a pair of Portland, Oregon, mixologists: Art Tierce, from the Teardrop Lounge, and Chino Lee from Departure. While these guys are surely accustomed to performing before a packed bar, one has to imagine that the pressure is on when mixing drinks in front of hundreds of onlookers and the judges. But all three bartenders seemed to take the challenge in stride, able to ham it up with judges while executing their drinks with precision.
Check out the slideshow to see what drinks they made, as well as other scenes from the glitzy soiree.