Just before the start of a bustling night behind a bar, Josh Hungerford sat next to his fiance and child in a booth on the porch of the Auburn Hotel and Dixon Conference Center, ready to compete in the Auburn Regional 2017 Bartender of the Year Competition.
A bartender by occupation for four and a half years and part of the restaurant and serving industry for 10 more, Hungerford works for The Tipping Point, a bar in Montgomery, and made the short trip to Auburn just for the competition.
Hungerford said one of the best things about being a bartender is working with people.
“I love interacting with people and finding out how to make their day better,” Hungerford said. “Whether it’s through a drink or just by talking with them.”
At the table next to Hungerford and his family sat Kayla Treat, another bartender — competitor, rather — and fellow Montgomery resident. Her friends sat around her, chatting as they waited for the event to begin.
Hungerford said he knew Treat already and was ready to compete with her, but the last contestant, Nolan Jones, a bartender from Auburn’s own Avondale Bar and Tap Room was new to him. He sat a little distance away from the two Montgomery residents.
By 6:30 p.m., a small crowd had gathered, and the emcee stood up in a white suit to begin the competition. Each bartender was given a list before the competition of 10 drinks, and during the competition, they were to make two that were assigned to them — one with their own spin, and one completely their own. Contestants were judged on accuracy, speed, creativity, taste and crowd interaction.
Treat went first, noticeably nervous. She stood behind the small bar with the judges’ table directly in front of it, voice quiet as she called out the ingredients while she mixed them in spite of the emcee's attempts to hold a microphone close to her. But though her voice was unsure, her movements were not, and she prepared the drinks quickly and accurately as the crowd quietly watched.
The quiet crowd was not common according to Shae Perkins, director of member relations at the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
“Sometimes the [crowd] is really loud and even bring signs, but this was more subdued,” Perkins said.
The quiet of the crowd lent the event an intense atmosphere, but one that was enjoyable to the audience nonetheless.
Treat's original drink was the “Bourbon Boom,” a refreshing take on bourbon which incorporated lots of orange and mint. Once she finished mixing her drinks to loud applause, the crowd came alive when she finished.
Jones soon took her place behind the differently shaped bottles on the bar counter. He too was nervous as evidenced by an ice cube spilling out of a cup while he stirred, but he put on a smile and finished mixing quickly and easily. His original drink “Kentucky Coffee” was recieved as the most creative of the contestants.
Hungerford went last, walking up to the bar with his bag on his shoulder, looking comfortable after seeing the other bartenders’ offerings. Shaking his mixer with one hand, he began making the drinks with an easy, almost nonchalant manner. He talked to the crowd with a voice that did not require a mic and gave a smile through his thick beard.
His original drink drew the most applause with the name "Fig Pimpin."
Having seen all contestants, the judges conferred for a moment while the emcee mingled with the crowd, asking them to shout out their favorite drinks. Soon, they were ready and announced the results to great applause. Jones third, Hungerford second, Treat first.
“My favorite part was having everyone try my drink and them loving it,” Treat said.
She will be moving on to the state competition in Birmingham with a chance to win the $1500 grand prize.
Though he did not win, Hungerford said he was not discouraged.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Hungerford said, “But I’m happy with second place.”
At the end of the night, spectators, contestants, sponsors and organizers stood around the bar, chatting, enjoying each others’ company, becoming more than acquaintances.
“It is a community,” said James Joseph, ambassador for Old Forester, one of the sponsors of the event. “And events like this are some of the best way to build community and camaraderie between bartenders.”