Joe Bork Dugan Wins Bartender Battle at Wink & Nod

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Last week, Joe Bork Dugan of Pastoral won the first-ever Boston Bartender Bout, a four-week cocktail competition hosted by Wink & Nod and featuring spirits from the Campari portfolio. The competition pitted two Boston-area bartenders against each other every week, with the winner of each heat advancing to the finals in week four.

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After prevailing over Bre-Anne Zeek of Pammy’s in week two, Joe squared off in the finals against Haley Hamilton of River Bar, Patrick Murphy of Trophy Room, and Julian Bernal of Wink & Nod. The competition consisted of two rounds. In the first, all four bartenders prepared the cocktail of their choice, and attendees voted for their favorites. The top two vote-getters would move onto the final round.

 Jalapeño Business.

Jalapeño Business.

Joe’s first drink, Jalapeño Business, was a spicy number made with mezcal, Campari, lime, strawberry/rosemary syrup, and a jalapeño tincture.

Smoky and herbal with a balance of heat and sweet, the cocktail scored him a matchup with Patrick Murphy, whose Tide Pod Reform Now cocktail featured an ice cube that looked like a Tide Pod (but thankfully didn’t taste like one).

The Rules of the Duel

The rules were simple. The two combatants would have 10 minutes to create an original cocktail using a surprise ingredient, and then another 5 minutes to make four of the same cocktail for a panel of judges. The judges – Backbar co-owner Sam Treadway, cocktail luminary Brother Cleve, PAGU bar manager Savannah Weinstock, and myself – would evaluate the cocktails on the basis of presentation, flavor, balance, and depth.

Once the secret ingredient was revealed – Braulio, an amaro with notes of aromatic plants, roots, and alpine herbs – the two bartenders got to work.

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Fifteen minutes later, we had our drinks, and we took at least that long to deliberate. Both drinks were excellent; and the entire judging panel was impressed with Joe and Patrick’s ability to be creative under pressure, with little opportunity to refine their hastily conceived recipes.

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Ultimately we settled on Joe’s cocktail, a mix of Braulio, Wild Turkey 81 bourbon, Cocchi Americano, and lemon, with an absinthe rinse. We appreciated the way it showcased the Braulio and admired its elegant presentation.

Having vanquished his foes, Joe was awarded a Cynar swag bag loaded with goodies and an impressive championship belt.

 Photo used with permission from Joe Dugan.

Photo used with permission from Joe Dugan.

The Victor Speaks

Joe is a talented bartender and cocktail creator who’s been behind the stick at several popular Boston establishments. He worked for several years at Wink & Nod, helped open Certified Meatball in South Boston, and now resides at Pastoral, where I met him a few days after the competition to talk about his winning cocktail. (He wasn’t wearing the belt.)

Explaining that his objective was to emphasize the Braulio in the drink, Joe initially tried the amaro in a gin drink. He quickly abandoned that approach, declaring it “gruesome.” Instead he turned to whiskey, knowing that bourbon and amaro are a time-honored pairing.

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The key was dilution, which Joe explained is more than a matter of simply watering down a drink. He chose Cocchi Americano, an aperitif with a bit of sweetness, as a way to “dilute and soften the drink, adding flavor and body without taking away from the Braulio.” He used lemon to balance it some citrus, and on a whim, added an absinthe rinse. “The absinthe rinse is always a bit of a crowd pleaser,” Joe noted.

It certainly pleased the judges, and I enjoyed the cocktail even more when Joe re-created it at Pastoral. The rich alpine notes of the Braulio are prominent but don’t overwhelm the other flavors.

Absinthe gives it an herbal nose, and the artful lemon garnish contributes a tart citrus note. The drink itself is almost creamy, like a flip, with a foamy head.

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Joe said he’d probably tweak the proportions if he ever considered adding it to a cocktail menu. But if you ask me, it’s already a winner.

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