Tuesday, April 14, 2009

2009 Grand Marnier Navan Mixology Summit, Vail, CO - April 4-7, 2009

Wow, what a weekend! Difficult to digest all that went on here in Vail for the 2009 Grand Marnier Navan Mixology Summit but, suffice it to say, it was one of the most amazing experiences any of us has ever had the good fortune to enjoy--and live through (depending on who you ask). Doing my best to recap through the fog of work, Grandma, work, bad pizza, Tobala, chili, work and Grandma--here are some of my key moments from a weekend that will stand the test of time!

Our crew of stalwarts began to touch down in Denver Friday around midday, to bright sunny skies that did not believe the madness of snow flurries (read BLIZZARD) that stood between us and our faithfully appointed rounds in Vail. Myself, Willy Shine, Aisha Sharpe and John Lermeyer met up with Lemon Boy--aka Leo DeGroff—at the Denver airport and commenced our journey. A brief delay and upgrade of the SUV at Hertz from large to mega-jumbo allowed Eric Alperin to catch up with us and the six of us began a slow ride to the mountains. In no hurry, since the pass on I-70 was snowed under and closed for now, we took our time allowing more of the crew-Tad Carducci, Don Lee, and Anthony Alba—to catch up with us as we stopped along the way at a Brew Pub that served chili in a bowl made from bread (why?). We had waited out the road delays and made our way to the Vail Cascade by Friday evening, soon to be our home for five intense days. As the evening wore on Steve Olson and the Mountain Elf himself, Jeff Grdinich emerged from the slopes to join us and later that night when Danny Valdez and Mike Flannery arrived from New Orleans and Miami respectively the aka wine geek team was all aboard. If memory serves, it was Spike Lee’s Radio Raheem character from Do the Right Thing who wore the gigantic ‘JOY’ and ‘PAIN’ rings/brass knuckles as he delivered his cautionary monologues to Mookie about the state of mankind, if not, Rob Base certainly sang loud and proud about how the two can go hand in hand. There would be plenty of joy and a touch of pain here and there over the next few days but, all in the name of the craft, so we were ready to go.

Saturday started for some on our team with a trip to the rental shop for ski/board equipment. The dumping that had taken place left many a snow hound panting for fresh powder and Steve led a group into the deep white beyond that would have crushed the mortal. Ok--so many of them were mortal (not Steve and Jeff who took apart the mountain) but since when is that a crime. The rest of the team, the non-mountain folk, took a slower pace. Leo, for instance, went into town looking for sales (nice one, brotha). As midday turned to afternoon, the crew found their way back in various stages of white out. We met up in the Juniper room, which had no way of knowing at the time that it would never smell the same again. Once Anthony began cooking and turning Grandma into powder and fritos, the room stopped being a room, and when the 19 cases of citrus came up from receiving, the Juniper once and for all became our ‘scullery’.

We commenced to prepare for the weekend’s activities, which consisted of many moving parts. Since the first task many of the 100 plus Summit attendees would be tending to upon their arrival Sunday, was to create their drinks in the Mix labs, we got started there. A conference room with three air walls and a long foyer was soon transformed into one of the coolest parts of the weekend. For those that don’t know, each of the attendees at the Summit was a consultant who was ‘hired’ to produce two of four recipes that they had submitted. This cocktail creation and documentation took place at the Mixology labs. What make these labs, and this part of the weekend, so special is that they allow some of the country & world’s best mixologists to show off their passion and creativity and share it with others. It allowed them to meet one another, talk, share ideas, and watch each other work. The thing that made the labs so much better than last year was the community that they fostered. Last year each lab was in a different part of the hotel and that tended to keep everyone moving in different directions, at least when it came to their drink preparation. This year everyone had to come together to sign up and make their drinks. It allowed for a lot of meeting and mind sharing among some of the tops in our game, and that was a lot of fun. So, for our team, we spent most of Saturday evening getting the labs prepared for the impressive group of bartenders that would be descending upon them for the next two days. By the time we left that night we were getting excited.

Sunday began way too early. Literally way too early for me because the clock in my room was an hour fast and I was downstairs, in the scullery at 6:10am wondering why my crack team was so late for their 7am call. Whoops. You know you’re in bad shape when they aren’t even brewing coffee on property yet. At least it was 8 am in NY, so I was able to get going and, before too long, the best ever group of bartenders was joining me to continue our prep for the big weekend. With the Mix Labs essentially up and ready to go, half the team (Tad, Don, John, Eric, Danny and Jeff) were dispatched to get them running at full speed and help the bartenders navigate the maze of spirits, fruits, herbs, spices and bitters. The rest of us set about preparing for the night’s big kickoff—The Summit Welcome Reception. We knew we’d have a bunch of thirsty bartenders coming to our bar at the nearby Donovan Pavillion that evening, so we started squeezing juice and cutting garnishes to have enough cocktails to handle what was sure to be a busy night. Those of us who were at last year’s Grand Marnier Navan Summit remembered how much fun the Welcome Reception was, because it puts us all in the atmosphere that makes us the most comfortable—a busy bar filled with friendly people and in this case friendly bartenders.

We prepped and batched all day, (well, except for Anthony who was dehydrating stuff and making foams and things…) and set up the bar to make some great drinks. The line up featured Smokey Margaritas, Grand Ma 100 Smashes, Decadent Daisy’s (with GM 100 and DJ 1942), Perfect Storms, Aisha’s Sage Martni (with Navan and Tanqueray 10), Eric’s Daisy Duke (with Grandma, Rye, lemon and agave) and of course many F’in Grandma shots (Absinthe with GM 100 and DJ 1942). It was a powerful lineup of cocktails and we knew our audience well - they weren’t afraid to consume. The cocktails were served up with pride as the whole team took their turn behind the bar, more than ably assisted by Josh, Nate(dog) and the fearless crew from Larkspur who rocked it right along side us (while keeping us fully compliant with the liquor laws of the great state of Colorado!) The night flowed perfectly. Our summit attendees filed in by the bus load, beginning a crescendo that didn’t peak until the last song had played. As the evening passed, the DJ-who was that DJ?-got the music rolling and the energy in room was electric. So much fun had in that room that night. Everyone was dancing, from the Grand Marnier team to Monday night’s Chef, Bertrand Bouquin (and his entire team) from the Broadmoor, to a raucous group of bartenders who felt, as I did, that something special was happening. This was only the first night, but the stage had been set for a weekend to remember.

Monday started with a few tired eyes, but the aka wine geek team battled late night demons and lived to work another (long) day. We started at the labs at 8am where Francesco Lafranconi kicked things off, re-opening a few of those tired eyes with his Chop-Chop (GM with Passion fruit, Angostura, OJ, egg whites and Champagne). By the time Adam Seger unveiled his own personal farmers market to create with, the thoughts of Sunday night had been put on hold, and Monday was in full swing. Myself and the rest of the team set about getting things ready for our three big events of the day—the Seminar, the Gala Reception and Dinner and the After Party/Casino room. There was lots to do as over the next several hours we were going to have to prepare and serve somewhere around 60 gallons of drinks. A daunting task for many, but not for this amazing crew.

The first event of the day, for about forty brave souls, was a little bit of snow tubing. The Grand Marnier team, led by Antoine Gervais and Giles Badin oversaw a raucous group of tubers and Tad was there to prepare some hot drinks. The Grand Marnier Chocolate Bon Bon and the Navan Coffee Cuddler were on hand to fortify any nerves that might have been awaiting the would-be lugers.

Back down the hill we readied for the afternoon’s events which began at 3pm with Steve Olson’s seminar on Grand Marnier and its higher Marques. The theme of the seminar was the cocktail menu. Steve took everyone through a complete tasting of Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge, Cuvee Centenaire, Cuvee Cent Cinquantenaire and Navan. The tasting was amazing and allowed many to see these great products in a new light and in some cases, taste the higher Marques for the first time. It was an amazing tasting, done as only Steve can, but it was just a hint of all the fun that was in store. The guests were treated to two cocktails during the seminar (The Stork Club Cocktail as they arrived, and the GM 150 Crusta as the tasting portion of the seminar concluded.) Steve and I talked a lot about the cocktail menu and how to think about it, structure it, and ways to execute high end cocktails that will blow guests minds-in any type of account. Then as the seminar wrapped up, the guests came around to five stations, each featuring a different aspect of what the cocktail menu can be about and ideas about how to employ the techniques. At the five stations the attendees saw everything from ways to utilize fresh, quality ingredients to make complex, balanced cocktails, to tips on utilizing luxury cocktails on the cocktail menu. They got ideas about historical techniques like fat-washing and utilizing tinctures to make your own bitters. Anthony and Willy even showed everyone how to make a Grand Marnier Sidecar that you could eat like a piled-high cracker. The drinks and ideas flowed freely, giving everyone a chance to add to their Rolodex of drink making.

If the day had stopped right there, it would have been amazing, but as luck would have it, the day, or night, was just getting started. As the seminar wound down, we shifted our efforts to the Gala Reception and Dinner. There was only about ½ hour between the end of the seminar and stations until the beginning of the dinner, so we had to act quickly. As mentioned earlier, the night’s menu was developed and executed by Bertrand Bouquin, Executive Chef of Summit, the featured restaurant on the property of The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Steve and I have had the pleasure of working with Bertrand since Summit opened in 2006 and are always blown away by his food, so we knew everyone was in for a culinary treat. However, what we probably love most about Bertrand (other than the fact that he is probably the nicest Chef or person you will ever meet) is his passion for cocktails. Bertrand worked with us to not only provide a great menu that we could match to but also helped to prepare many of the ingredients that we used in the dinner cocktails. The menu looked like this:

Grand Marnier Gala Dinner


Isla Rouge
Navan, Tanqueray Ten, hibiscus syrup, fresh lemon juice, Moet White Star

La Vie en Rose
Grand Marnier, raspberry coulis, fresh lemon, Moet Nectar Imperial

Ahi Tuna Tartar, Harissa Relish, Watermelon Radishes, Mint Oil

Way High Hogo
Grand Marnier, Ten Cane, fresh pineapple juice, lime juice, mountain mint, agave nectar

Cocoa Nib Crusted Halibut, Creamy Leeks, Port Reduction

Going LaPostolle
Navan, Don Julio Reposado Tequila, Casa LaPostolle Syrah, fresh pear, lemon juice

Braised Beef Short Ribs with Rioja, Parsley Mashed Potato, Baby Carrots

CXXXIII (sex-y)
Grand Marnier 100th Anniversary, Glenmorangie 18-year, Dry Sack 15-year Oloroso Sherry, orange bitters

Pistachio and Coconut Cake, Macerated Fresh Berries, Ginger-Milk Chocolate Cream

Café Alexandra
Grand Marnier, Pisco, Espresso, cream, brown sugar syrup, topped with Navan whipped cream

The drinks came from the back of the house where the full team went all-in, shaking each drink by hand in a spectacle that had to be seen to be appreciated. The Boston shakers flew back and forth in an assembly line that would be hard to compare with anything normal. Think high volume night club meets high volume five star kitchen. Just enough drama to make it exciting--the process of getting the drinks out for this great audience drove us all. It was fun and inspiring to shake with this team of amazing bartenders and watching us knock out over 1500 drinks in just over an hour was equal parts exhilarating and exhausting, but there was no time to exhale (or eat) as we had one more hurdle to clear.

As dinner wound up it was the right time to offer some thank yous. Steve rightfully gave kudos to the many people who made this weekend happen. The Grand Marnier brand team, led by JC Iglesias, Laurent Cutier, Antoine Gervais and Giles Badin continued an amazing commitment to the trade that flows from the very top. Alexandra Marnier Lapostolle, who once again was in attendance for all parts of the Summit weekend (even shaking a few cocktails--but more on that later). Alexandra and her company’s dedication to the bartender trade is to say the least impressive. To have them put on this event to celebrate all the good that is going on in our industry right now, speaks volumes about where the brand’s loyalties lie, especially in this difficult economy. Special thanks were made (most deservedly) to Virginia Lawson who organized the event from beginning to end and succeeded in making it one of the greatest cocktail events ever produced.

Just after the speeches, we got everyone together for a bartenders group shot that hopefully one day will be held up to show what an amazing group of talent had come to Vail on this weekend. After the pictures clicked the curtains were pulled back to reveal the After Party/Casino Room. The GM team created six gaming tables for gusts to play roulette, craps, black jack and poker with the winners getting cool prizes for their slam dance with lady luck. While the lucky ones sat at the gaming tables the luckier ones milled about the bar, as our team (one more time because they deserve many of the accolades for this weekend: Steve Olson, Andy Seymour, Leo DeGroff, Willy Shine , Aisha Sharpe, Eric Alperin, John Lermeyer, Tad Carducci, Anthony Alba, Don Lee, Mike Flannery, Jeff Grdinich and Danny Valdez) jumped behind the bar one more time to shake Smokey Margaritas, Smashes, Crustas, Fairy Grandmothers and a crack a few well deserved beers for this truly special group in attendance at the 2009 Grand Marnier Navan Mixology Summit. We weren’t alone back there all night as a few guests jumped back there along side the team. One of the highlights of the weekend was when Alexandra herself jumped in with us to shake it up. She stood back there like a pro with us, shaking smashes, margaritas and some chilled Grandma shots! How can you top it when the owner of the brand is back there blasting out shots to a thirsty crowd? You can’t! The room rocked till late night and while it was a huge relief for our team when the lights went up (since it meant we were finally off the clock) it was also a bit of a disappointment that the weekend’s fun was almost over.

Tuesday was a mixed bag as many attendees had to leave to head back to work, while many others stayed to take advantage of the mountain or spa! Everybody looked a little rough at the morning brunch but the feeling in the air was unmistakable—the group had really drawn together. Many of those who came to the Summit knew a few of the others in attendance, but you could see it throughout the weekend, bartenders getting to know each other, talking shop, shooting the breeze, just coming together and having a great time. The energy all over was immensely positive and those of us who had a hand in putting it on felt a true sense of pride that we could make it all go down successfully for these pros. It was an unbelievably hardcore bunch of days for those of us in the back of the house, but we all agreed: you could not have any more fun than we had this weekend. Hopefully if you were there you feel the same way about your time in Vail. If you weren’t there this year, we hope to get you in the mix this time next year. It will be an honor. With love and respect, Andy Seymour.

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