Max Barwick, 1618 Midtown bartender, makes gold in a glass

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Max Barwick, the bar manager at 1618 Midtown in Greensboro, recently won the 2018 Cocktail Classique, a national mixology competition that uses Lucid absinthe, with his drink, “Bitter Party of One.” Barwick will visit the Lucid Absinthe’s Distillery in France in November.

How long have you been bartending and how did you get into it?
I started in service industry as soon as I was old enough to work. I’ve done everything from bussing tables to serving. I fell in love with food really early on and cooking and eating and the combinations of different flavors. A few years ago, when I was managing a sushi place in High Point, I started making drinks behind the bar for customers. That’s when I found that I really liked bartending. The bar acts as a kind of front-of-house kitchen, with lots of experimenting with flavors but just not as serious; it’s more fun. I started working for 1618 five years ago when it was still a wine lounge and was asked to do their beverage program. My girlfriend, Emma Smith, is the bar manager at 1618 Downtown, so we have that shared passion. We stay up late nights just talking about a single bottle of rum.

How did you get involved with the competition?
This was actually my first competition ever. Emma and I were talking one day about how we both wanted to start entering competitions. The Lucid one was the first one that popped up for the beginning of the year. I found out about it through an email sent out by the US Bartenders Guild. To apply, I had to follow a list of rules or criteria for recipes like the minimum amount of absinthe you had to use and I had to choose which region I wanted to compete in. The choices were Houston, Brooklyn, Seattle, Atlanta, and Chicago. I wanted to pick Atlanta but couldn’t because the semi-finals were during the furniture market, so I went with Brooklyn and qualified based on the recipe I sent in.

What was the process of coming up with the drink like? How did you pick the ingredients?
As soon as I applied, I had an idea for the cocktail. I wanted to make a sort of tiki drink that was shaken and stirred but had a depth of flavor with less ingredients. Usually tiki drinks have like 13 ingredients but for the competition, we couldn’t have more than eight including a garnish. We also have a huge rum program here and so I decided to make a drink that was equal parts Lucid absinthe, rum and bitters. The cool fennel and lavender flavors from the absinthe paired with the spice from the bitters which are super clove-heavy, and the flavors of allspice and nutmeg make a super aromatic drink. The rum has decent back-sweetening, too, so you get these banana and pineapple flavors. We also used a house-made falernum, a rum-based island spiced syrup that’s made from lime zest, ginger, toasted cloves, toasted almonds and rum. In its nature, it’s an island beverage but it’s served the opposite of that because it’s smaller and isn’t served with ice. We had to condense it on itself with all of the depth of flavor.

It’s sweeter than I thought it would be but not too sweet. It has a kick in the beginning with a smooth, spicy finish.
Yeah, I have the words “Nothing too sweet” tattooed on my body. For any drink, the bitter, sour, sweet and spirit should all balance out. The drink should have layers to it. This one has cloves so it’s on the spicy end and I get some of that fennel and fruit loops from the absinthe too.

What was the actual competition like?
Entering was weird because I submitted and then I didn’t hear anything for months. I had to stop thinking about it all the time. I got the email that I qualified for the regional competition in Brooklyn and then when I won, it was surreal to talk about for like two weeks. Then the national competition was in New Orleans and there were five of us, one from each of the regions. They did the whole thing on Facebook live and I had to just give my phone to Emma because my phone kept going off. You also had to bring your own glassware and I checked a liter of the falernum into my suitcase. Everyone had 10 minutes to present to three judges and talk them through your idea and how you’re making drink.

Did you prepare a speech or talk before you went?
No, I didn’t because I’m used to working behind a bar and I knew there were things I wanted to talk about. I wanted to treat it like service and talk to them how I would talk to my guests here. I have an educational style of bartending because the cocktail stuff here is so new for our day-to-day guests and I’ve adapted that style of teaching so I took that approach with the judges.

What did it feel like when they announced that you had won?
I had a weird rush of feeling and it was very humbling and weird to win the first one I’ve entered. I’m still wrapping my head around it, it’s weird. I’m honored to have been able to make drinks with the guys I competed with; they’re all world class.

What happens now?
I’m going to France in November which is cool because I’ve never been out of the country before. I’ll be visiting the Lucid distillery and maybe even doing a bar takeover in Paris. I still don’t have a passport. Emma is getting all my paperwork together now.

Do you plan on entering more competitions?
Yeah, I want to enter more this year. I’m entering one for Montenegro because it’s a global competition but they’re only picking 10 people from US. I’ll try to do a couple of the big ones next year too. There’s nothing better than making drinks and getting to travel. There’s tons of opportunity in the industry.

What’s your favorite drink?
My favorite cocktail is probably a classic daiquiri. Lime juice, rum and sugar — it’s my go-to. We have them on tap here. It doesn’t have to be this white, frozen, super sweet drink. We’re still in the age in Greensboro where you go see people for cocktails, not necessarily places but we’re creeping out of that. We have a crazy food scene here but the bar and drink scene is pretty far behind. All you can do is keep trying to push it and be helpful to each other.

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