His biggest challenge of the night turned out to be a solution in disguise for this now award-winning bartender.
Leave it to the lychee.
Brad Walling has been mixing drinks in Tucson for six years, but had never thought about entering a cocktail competition until he was invited to participate in the “Cocktail Fight” earlier this month at Playground Bar and Lounge.
The popular downtown club hosts four different Tucson-area bartenders every month for a mixology melee of sorts, where the grand prize is “title and glory” and the money raised is donated to charity. Walling thought it was the right time to strut his stuff, especially when doing it in the name of a worthy non-profit organization, and agreed to suit up for battle.
“This was the first cocktail competition I had ever been a part of, and not knowing the secret ingredient until the competition actually began made preparation a challenge,” said Walling, bar manager at Brother John’s Beer, Bourbon, and Barbeque, 1801 N. Stone Avenue.
Competitors are required to concept, create, and serve two cocktails to a panel of judges, each containing a mystery ingredient which isn’t revealed until the contest starts, within a timeline of 12 minutes.
“A couple of days before the event, I basically came up with three or four cocktails in my mind that represented each of the base spirits,” he said, “and I figured that at least one would work, more or less, once the secret ingredient was announced.”
Walling got busy right away in the first round using one of the secret ingredients, Morita chiles, to bring what he called a “spicy smoke” to his take on the classic Paloma cocktail.
He anchored his Paloma with an Agave Silver spirit from Tucson’s Three Wells Distilling Company, the liquor sponsor for that month’s event, adding fresh orange, lemon, lime, agave nectar, Morita chiles, and a simple syrup infused with watermelon and Tajin spice.
“This cocktail had great character, with an amazing spirit, that allowed the ingredients to really complement one another,” he said.
Round one went to Walling, who returned later in the evening to face off in the finals against the victor from round two.
Which brings us back to the lychee, a tropical fruit encased in a hideous skin of tangled spines and spores resembling a creature that you might find crawling around on the ocean floor.
It was one of the secret ingredients in the final round, and its very revelation drew gasps from contestants and spectators alike.
Walling tells me that he had never even heard of a lychee much less tasted one, but quickly turned obstacle into opportunity by popping one in his mouth.
Noting the absence of a definitive flavor profile other than a hint of sweetness, he quickly concluded that the Three Wells Gin, distilled from wild Mt. Lemmon juniper, would be a great companion for it.
He aerobically shook the gin and lychees together, adding fresh raspberries, agave nectar, lemon juice, and a splash of grapefruit soda, and garnished the cocktail with a raspberry puree-drizzled lemon wheel and a sprig of fresh thyme to enhance the gin’s botanical qualities.
It was enough to put Walling over the top, and his advice for those facing uncertainty, as he did when that foreign fruit stared him down, is simple.
“Don’t overthink it, don’t be closed to new ideas, and don’t be afraid to bail on an idea and just hit refresh.”
Playground’s next Cocktail Fight is scheduled for September 12 at 7:30 pm, with four new competitors chasing title and glory for themselves.
Until then, congratulations to Brad Walling and to lychee lovers everywhere.
Contact Matt Russell, whose day job is CEO of Russell Public Communications, at email@example.com. Russell is also the host of “On the Menu Live” that airs 5 to 6 p.m. Saturdays on KQTH 104.1 FM, as well as the host of the Friday Weekend Watch segment on the “Buckmaster Show” on KVOI 1030 AM.