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Highlights from Last Week’s Coffee Cocktail Challenge

Having some fun with Old Harbor's Ampersand liqueur
Stephen Kurpinsky prepares his Smoke Break cocktail | Photo by Kelly Davis

By Kelly Davis

San Diego is home to a growing number of distillers—like Henebery Whiskey (showing up on more and more menus), Kill Devil Spirits Co., and San Diego Distillery, which celebrates its grand opening on March 12.

Then there’s Old Harbor and its charismatic founder Michael Skubic, the guy who inspired Ironside’s Skubic Diver, named San Diego Magazine’s Best Cocktail of 2015 (and one of my all-time favorites).

Recently, Old Harbor released Ampersand, a collaboration with Coffee & Tea Collective (which just opened a very charming second location in East Village). Ampersand combines cold-brew coffee and rum. The goal, Skubic says, was to create a “coffee-forward coffee liqueur.” Coffee-forward indeed. It’s delicious, well-rounded, and works just as well in a cocktail as it does over ice.

To celebrate Ampersand, Old Harbor held a cocktail challenge last weekend at the Westgate Hotel. Bartender challenges are always a bit dizzying—they move quickly and you get a little more sloshed as the competition progresses. In other words, I didn’t stay for the whole thing, but I did hang around for the entire first round and got a good sense (and taste) of Ampersand’s range, and picked up some home-cocktail ideas (hello, morita chili simple syrup).

These were some of the evening’s highlights:

Steven Kurpinsky’s Smoke Break: San Diego Magazine readers might be familiar with George’s at the Cove’s Kurpinsky, whose eye-catching Sea Cubed cocktail recently caught Troy Johnson’s attention. Here, he created the Smoke Break, a memorable spirit-forward concoction that included Old Harbor’s Barrelflag Rum slow-dripped through tobacco, Mexican cinnamon, cocoa nibs, Ampersand, Ancho Reyes, and roasted chicory bitters.

Mike Mayaudon’s boozy milkshake: Can’t decide between dessert and an after-dinner drink? Problem solved! Mayaudon’s Six to Midnight combined Ampersand, vanilla bean ice cream, cold-brew coffee, and sarsaparilla bitters—and won the first round of competition. Mayaudon, who’s from Leucadia, currently works behind the bar at Portland’s Raven & Rose.

Mikey Hines’s Cold Fashioned: When Hines stepped up to the bar, he got my attention by using a whiskey I’d never heard of—Seven Stills’ Chocasmoke, made from a chocolate oatmeal stout and peat-smoked malted barley. The Chocasmoke, plus Ampersand, Giffard vanilla liqueur, and Fee Brothers Aztec Chocolate bitters made for a fantastic twist on an Old Fashioned. You can find Hines behind the bar at Urge Gastropub’s new Oceanside location.

Guy Marino’s use of frozen espresso: Been to Halcyon for coffee? Go for cocktails. Bar manager Guy Marino ended up winning the whole challenge, which went on for three rounds. His first cocktail, the Ampersandiego, included Evangeline’s Praline Pecan liqueur, Henebery Whiskey, and Kill Devil Spirits Co.’s Ugly California Rise and Shine. At the bottom of the glass was an ounce of frozen espresso that, as it melted, allowed the drink to evolve.

Irving Gonzalez’s morita chili simple syrup: The new lead bartender at the Westgate Hotel’s Plaza Bar created a lovely, tongue-tingling simple syrup using dried morita chilis (chipotle’s slightly sweeter cousin) to spice up his simple-yet-delicious cocktail of roasted pineapple juice and a float of Ampersand.

Mark Broadfoot’s and Ryan Walsh’s tiki cocktails: Broadfoot (Galaxy Taco) and Walsh (Kettner Exchange) showed off Ampersand’s range in tiki cocktails. I often tell folks I’m not a fan of tiki cocktails—then I try cocktails like these and wonder what I was thinking. I loved both of them, but neither placed in the judges’ top four. One judge (also a fan of these two cocktails) told me later that it might have been because cocktails didn’t play up Ampersand’s coffee flavor. Understandable, I guess. Walsh’s Hawaiian Wake-Up call riffed on a Polynesian Pearl Diver and included melted pistachio honey butter. Broadfoot’s Kilt Tan blended rums and scotches for a just-right smokey sweetness that worked beautifully with Giffard Banane du Brésil, pineapple syrup, fresh coconut milk, lemon, Angostura bitters, and an absinthe rinse.

Nick Messina’s cojones: The utterly charming Sycamore Den bartender showed up without a recipe. Nada. Nothing. Messina’s the kid who didn’t study for the test, but manages to do fine anyhow. He called his blend of Ampersand, Old Harbor Barrelflag Rum, and Captain Morgan (yes, Captain Morgan) “From the Hip.” It shouldn’t have worked, but it did. And it’s probably the drink that did me in.

Got suggestions for a future column? Write to [email protected].

Highlights from Last Week’s Coffee Cocktail Challenge

Stephen Kurpinsky prepares his Smoke Break cocktail | Photo by Kelly Davis

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