Annual Martini Mix Off 

It's that time of year again ... time for the annual Martini Mix Off and time for my liver to get back to work. This year, however, we judges may not have to work as hard. Down from the traditional drinker's dozen bars in former years, this year will there are only nine bars competing for the honor of having one of the winners in each of three categories: the classic, the sweet and the savory.

As in years past, Absolut is sponsoring the competition and some of that company's products will be used in making competition drinks, but the categories have been switched up a bit. In addition to the traditional classic martini, there will also be a sweet and savory category.

Of course, my favorite, the classic martini category, will remain unaltered. Unfortunately, bartenders have been messin' round with the medium. These newfangled drinks served in a stilleto-heeled glass are a far cry from your daddy's martini. I'm a little old-school when it comes to martinis. I like them clear. I like them with gin. And I like them a little wet. That's my preference when I make one at home. But in previous year's competitions, I must say I've encountered some variations on the classic that have blown me away. And they were neither clear, nor with gin, nor wet.

The sweet category is self-explanatory (I imagine chocolaty, creamy, syrupy and dessert-like) but the savory might offer up some definite surprises this year. As defined for this competition, the savory martini is anything but sweet, although when I first heard about it I envisioned a martini with a beef bouillon cube.

For the public, a coupon booklet is still quite a deal. The booklet ($50, available at all participating bars and Cheers, 828 W. Idaho St., 208-342-1805) holds a coupon for one martini in each participating bar during the month of May, as well as serves as your entry into the final awards gala. As usual, every Thursday in May, the judges are escorted around via limo to a trio of bars where they will sip a trio of martinis. The public is encouraged to tag along using their own means of transportation.

I recommend the Thursday night upscale pub crawl not because watching the judges try to hold their liquor is fun, but because some bars put on quite a show. In years past, both Red Feather and Pair have offered up terrific productions—although as professional judges we don't let pageantry affect our expert tongues.

On Thursday, May 8, we judges will visit TableRock Brewpub, Pair and Bardenay. Returning competitor TableRock rocked the house with their first year's efforts and we expect big things from them again this year. Jen Koble and Preston Eckman will continue Pair's top competitor status with three drinks named the Cocytus, the Fiery Francesca and the Jucifer. Bardenay's Sean Early will mix up drinks for a bar that has competed every year and has done well in years past. Bardenay's own distillery has continued to improve year after year, and I'm definitely excited to taste the martinis they come up with.

The other six participating bars that will be judged in May include Bittercreek, Chandlers, The Modern Hotel, Piper Pub, Red Feather and Berryhill. As always, the musical chairs of bartenders see some old faces at new bars and new faces at old bars. Notably, coming out of retirement after sweeping the Martini Mix Off awards in 2006 for the now defunct MilkyWay is Pat Carden mixing for Chandlers. I wonder if he'll bring back the 10 Minute Martini?

Bingo Barnes is a professional martini judge who has been judging the Martini Mix Off for five years. He is also the former editor of Boise Weekly and recently returned from a misadventure in Alaska.

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