It’s no secret that cocktails and art fuel my life. To have both combined together in one heady mix makes for glamour overload. Last Saturday night saw me at such an event, the annual ARTINI gala at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, hosted by the 1869 Society. I’ve said it before, and I’m not ashamed to repeat that being asked to serve on the judging panel of the first Critic’s Choice was a great honor and one of the high points so far of my We Love DC life.
With an estimated attendance of 750 guests mingling under classical columns in the long red gallery, dressed in the first finery of spring, it was a gorgeous scene. After my judging duties were over I stood on the marble steps just watching the crowd, marveling at how much DC has changed in the two decades I’ve been here. There was a vibrant energy, combined with a fashion sense ranging from quirkily vintage to elegantly artsy. My guest, no slouch herself when it comes to fashion and art, described it as “an eye candy madhouse.”
But this isn’t a social column! ARTINI is first and foremost an event designed to showcase the glory of the Corcoran’s collection as it inspires 12 local mixologists to be daring and creative. We already know the winner of both the Critic’s Choice and the Washingtonian Fan Favorite was Ronald Flores of Art and Soul‘s Coleman’s Juice. The Critic’s Choice was a tight race with Joe Ambrose of POV‘s Joan’s Palate coming in at second by only 0.1, rounded out by Brent Davis from AGAINN‘s The Fall of Grace. In the Fan Favorite, Brent took second and Cafe Atlantico‘s Owen Thompson’s Daisy If You Do… took third.
How did all the drinks fare? As judges we had to consider three elements – taste, presentation, and connection to the inspiration art. Trying to hit all three buttons isn’t easy.
Throughout the month of March, the We Love DC drinks team has been sampling these entries at the weekly feature nights. Clear favorites emerged. I was intrigued by their descriptions but didn’t sample any cocktail until that evening. As we six judges went from station to station, spending a few minutes with each bartender to learn more about their entry and the artwork that inspired them, it was apparent that a great amount of time, talent and research goes into crafting an ARTINI.
I asked Diana Kaw, member programs officer at the Corcoran, about what goes into the event itself. The 1869 Society Steering Committee starts planning ARTINI in November of the previous year. They review the previous years rosters and consider who was “especially enthusiastic” about being involved. They also strongly consider geographical location of venues, to make sure that entries are spread out throughout the city. “We want to highlight hot spots in the District!” Diana said, “The interest in craft cocktails in this city has grown and I read up on who was doing exciting things.”
What was most striking as we moved through the stations was how varied the inspiration art was – from painting, sculpture and photography, from historic to contemporary work. Contestants are presented with a curated selection from which to choose their inspiration piece. It’s a group pulled from across the collection, narrowed down based on what will be on view at the time of the event and what the reproduction rights are for a particular piece. After they select the inspiration work, how much research they do or how they come up with their cocktail is all up to the bartender.
Peeking into my scribbled notes on the recipe book, it’s clear that the deciding factor for me was always how well they evoked the artwork. Not all the drinks were to my personal taste, and a few went too sweet in the taste and too subtle in the presentation. But there was something in the style, creativity or enthusiasm to admire in almost every one.
Going through and detailing each cocktail would make for an exhaustive article! So instead of an oil painting, I’ll give you a quick sketch of what’s stayed in my mind out of the 12…
The clear coolness of B Cup (Josh Berner of Church & State), cheekily evoking Kiki Smith’s 1990 blown glass sculpture Breast Jar with its spherical ice cube and bisecting blade of bison grass. A taste “like skin,” as was murmured next to me.
The sheer audacity of Bonfire Shelter (Jonathan Harris of The Gibson) in attempting to bring you into the frame of Albert Bierstadt’s 1888 painting The Last of the Buffalo, its Prairie Essence perfume dabbed onto the hand to inhale the deep clary sage of the range before bombarding you with whiskey intensity.
The risky floral bomb of Ratchet (The Wilder Brothers of Potenza), nailing the look of James Hyde’s oil paint, glass and silicone 1995 work Ratchet with a crazy ice cube of flower essence and petals and an over-the-top presentation.
The American classic of Sea Legs Daiquiri (Chantal Tseng of Tabard Inn), its sea salt and creme de violette making me nostalgic for my New England childhood, and reminding me how much I love Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting Ground Swell.
How perfectly the intense yellow of Joan’s Palate (Joe Ambrose at POV), with its quirky quarter rim of black lava salt, matched not just the color scheme of Joan Mitchell’s 1979 oil painting Salut Tom, but the feeling of the large-scale swirling canvas and perhaps the artist’s personality as well.
How the smoky intensity of the mezcal in Coleman’s Juice (Ronald Flores at Art and Soul) and the visual joke of the housemade Slim Jim brought me into the 1982 sculpture Coleman’s Cafe by William Christenberry.
How Brent Davis of AGAINN noticed a flaw in the 1923 sculpture The Sons of God Saw The Daughters of Man That They Were Fair by Daniel Chester French, and mimicked that flaw by clipping his rose petal garnish for The Fall of Grace.
How Owen Thompson of Cafe Atlantico toasted rye berries to infuse St. Germain and safely sourced vegetable-dyed leather to infuse tequila for his Daisy If You Do… to give a poolside highball style drink the necessary edge to represent Frederic Remington’s 1903 bronze Off the Range (Coming through the Rye).
An incredible amount of energy, time, thought and craft went into ARTINI 2011. Next time you order a cocktail, note how history and artistry are beautifully combined in your glass. And for bringing that art into your life, thank the talented person who made it.
Thanks to Diana Kaw at the Corcoran Gallery of Art for taking the time to answer my background questions. And a very special thanks to the other members of the Critic’s Choice panel – Sophie Gilbert, Beatrice Gralton, Justin Guthrie, Mike Isabella and Todd Thrasher – I learned a great deal that evening about cocktails, food and art from them all.