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A local bartender creates a world-class cocktail to win national mixology contest By Rod O'Connor The first thing you need to understand is that the U.S. Bartenders' Guild holds two types of competitions.

The "Flair" category is for the Tom Cruise-in-"Cocktail" wannabes who twirl bottles over their heads like circus performers; those who partake in the "Classic" category are serious mixologists with dreams of creating the next cosmopolitan, the next must-order drink.

Any barkeep worth his or her Boston shaker knows that a perfectly balanced drink can lead to immortality (just ask Tom Collins). It's that chance to make history that stokes the fires of the nation's best bartenders, many of whom were in town last weekend for the National Skyy Spirits World Cocktail Competition at Chi Bar in the Sheraton Hotel and Towers.

The winner in this Classic competition would not only take the national title but also represent the U.S. in the world event in Taiwan this November. But before the main bout could begin, the nascent Illinois chapter of the U.S. Bartenders' Guild had to select a regional champ to compete against four drink-slingers from Northern and Southern California, New York and Nevada.

The 14 local contestants started shaking, mixing and muddling at 11 a.m. (it was noon somewhere), but the energy level was sky-high as a deejay blasting dance tunes made it feel more like midnight in a packed club.

You wouldn't think watching someone strain liquids and juice a lime could be this exciting, but completing these complex cocktails within the seven-minute limit requires serious skill. In fact, the heat featuring Jennifer Contraveos (who works at Graze restaurant downtown) and Debbi Peek (of Tramonto's Steak & Seafood in Wheeling) was downright nerve-racking; the former barely finished garnishing her drink, which she dubbed "Tangie Sour," with just seconds on the clock.

"I usually take the full time, because if I slow everything down, it allows me to not miss any steps," Contraveos said afterward. "The first time I competed, I forgot to rim my glass. And I'm like, 'I'm never going to miss a step again.'"

These technical aspects are vital, as points are added or deducted based on ice-handling (always with bar tongs), over- or under-pouring (five completed drinks must be poured evenly) and the overall neatness of the bar station.

The primary scoring is based on three criteria: taste, appearance and aroma. To level the playing field, rules dictate only five ingredients per drink; this year, one had to be either Zen Green Tea Liqueur or Midori, a melon-flavored liqueur. Another base ingredient had to be from the Skyy Spirits portfolio.

After a procession of formidable concoctions, the panel of experts and restaurant industry types named Peek the Illinois winner. Her cocktail "Now and Zen" featured Zen liqueur, Skyy Citrus vodka, lemon grass syrup, fresh lemon juice and juice from the acai berry, an Amazonian super-fruit that's high in antioxidants.

At this point, it had proved a very good week for the 36-year-old from Barrington, as Peek had just a few days earlier taken second place at the "Iron Bar Chef" event in Vermont.

"I feel confident, but I hope I'm not feeling too confident," she said while prepping lemon twists for the national smackdown. "I'm just happy that I'm doing it in Chicago; that's the best part."

This was the first time the nationals had come to Chicago, pretty impressive considering the Illinois chapter didn't even exist a little more than a year ago. The credit goes to founder Bridget Albert, master mixologist for the distributor Southern Wine and Spirits and a Shorewood resident. A former competitor herself (she took second place in a world competition), she handles training for all Illinois chapter members.

But for the bartenders, joining the guild is about much more than these competitions; it's about honing their craft. To become a member, you must complete a rigorous 12-week course -- and you can't miss a single class.

"Basically I teach the history of every single thing behind the bar," Albert said. "With any profession you need to understand the basics."

As the national competition got under way and veteran bartenders such as the silver-haired Vince Cisneros from Southern California and the sure-handed Gaston Martinez from Vegas trotted out one by one, pouring stellar drinks with steely confidence, you could be forgiven for thinking that Illinois' Peek, in only her fourth-ever competition, was a bit overmatched.

But after another flawless performance, and with plenty of time to spare, Peek and "Now and Zen" stunned the crowd and came out the winner. Albert was in tears, hugging her protege as Peek hoisted the big silver victory cup.

Peek credited the complex flavor of the acai (ah-sigh-ee) berry as the ingredient that pulled everything together.

"I tried to go with something different but not so different that it didn't taste good," Peek said. "I guess it's the most nutritional fruit there is. I figured antioxidants, green tea: 'It's the alcoholic drink that's good for you.' But I don't know if your liver believes that."

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