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For new cocktails, check out the competitions

Where do new cocktail recipes originate?

Often from cocktail contests, which have a long tradition. One of the first, held in 1928 in Paris, was called the “Grand Prix du Cocktail,” and included such contestants as racy Fauvist painter Kees Van Dongen and the wildly prolific playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry. At the end of Prohibition, California’s Del Monte Hotel held its own cocktail competition, with entries from celebrities such as actresses Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich and author Sinclair Lewis.

But since those days, most drink meets have been the province of professionals, as with the contest held to select an official quaff for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail, a festival held every July in New Orleans . This year, Stacey Smith, a bartender at GW Fins restaurant in the Crescent City was the winner, for her Starfish Cooler, a concoction of limoncello, pomegranate liqueur, iced tea and champagne.

To find a drink that actually entered the basic cocktail canon by way of winning a contest, one has to go back to one of the first major cocktail competitions ever held. In the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild event held in September 1930 in London, Berkeley Hotel’s Tom Buttery won with the Golden Dawn, a cocktail that is rightly considered a classic.

From the start, the proper recipe of the Golden Dawn was a matter of confusion. A wire service reporting on Buttery’s triumph in the contest said that the drink was made of equal parts gin, calvados (French apple brandy), apricot-flavored brandy, orange juice, with just a dash of grenadine. The New York Times, however, described the Golden Dawn as having two parts each of gin and calvados to one part each apricot brandy and orange juice, with a dash of grenadine.

So which is right? The United Kingdom Bartenders Guild endorses the equal-proportion method, but I prefer the drink described by the Times. Emphasizing the gin and the calvados makes for a drier, and decidedly more sophisticated drink.

Of course, customers are the final arbiters in what, if any, new drink is to catch on. Which is why the British contest traditionally relied on the judgment of two men and two women drawn from the thirsty masses.

“After all it’s the customers, not we, who buy the drinks,” said 1952, “Paul of Grosvenor House” (as one of the past presidents of the guild was professionally known). “Besides, many of us prefer beer.”

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Starfish Cooler

(Adapted from Stacey Smith’s Tales of the Cocktail contest-winning recipe.)

3 ounces champagne

1 ounce limoncello

1 ounce pomegranate liqueur

1 ounce unsweetened iced tea

Muddle an orange slice and a mint leaf in a tall glass. Add ice and the other ingredients, stir and garnish with mint.

Golden Dawn

1 ounce gin

1 ounce calvados

1/2 ounce apricot brandy

1/2 ounce orange juice

1 dash of grenadine

Shake all but the grenadine with ice and strain into a stemmed cocktail glass. Drizzle the dash of grenadine into the drink.

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CHECKING THE COCKTAIL CONTEST ARCHIVES

Two of the longest-running cocktail competitions are those held by the United Kingdom Bartenders Guild and the International Bartenders Association. Going through decades of winning entries in the I.B.A. competition is like digging through an archaeological site, stratum by stratum, revealing the evolution of cocktail styles. In 1955, the champion drink was made by an Italian barman, Giuseppe Neri. Named the Conca D’Oro, the cocktail’s ingredients were standard golden age fare – gin, cherry brandy, triple sec and maraschino liqueur. It’s drinkable, but just barely. The next year, a Finn succeeded with Bacardi, Cointreau, and port; two years later, a German bartender took the trophy with Bacardi, Cointreau, and grapefruit juice. None seems to have found repeat business.

During the ’70s and ’80s, new fashions in drink pushed to the fore, with a preponderance of cocktails using banana liqueur, amaretto, pineapple juice and (ugh) blue curacao. In the last decade, the International Bartenders Association judges seemed to have succumbed to morbid sugar cravings. For example, the 2005 victor was the infelicitously named Strawberry Night: Belgian bartender Sergio Pezzoli added passion fruit liqueur, green apple liqueur, passion fruit juice and strawberry juice to vanilla vodka and somehow still failed to produce a drink of sufficient sweetness; thus the recipe calls for the addition of sugar syrup (and a shot of insulin for good measure).

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