Daniel Dufek by Cody Magee.
On Monday evening INdustri Café (524 S 2nd St.) played host to five of Milwaukee’s most creative bartenders in a tequila cocktail competition sponsored by Don Julio as well as the United States Bartenders Guild.
In the end, though, it came down to sibling rivalry.
“This competition is 40% Dufek,” said Tom Dufek, of Madison’s Merchant . “I’d hate to lose to my brother, but there’s no one else here I’d rather lose to,” he said.
His brother Daniel, general manager of the Hi Hat Lounge and Garage (1601 N. Arlington St.) echoed those sentiments. Daniel is the younger of the two brothers, but has been bartending continuously for much longer, and is one of the principle actors in the recent rise in local craft cocktail culture.
Competitors were given their choice of Don Julio products from which to build their drinks, and were asked to create a riff on one of four classic tequila cocktails: the margarita, Paloma, el diablo or sangrita. They were also tasked with incorporating at least one locally-sourced component, which resulted in some interesting fusions of winter and summer flavors.
Tom Dufek by Cody Magee.
Spectators were composed mostly of friends and family, along with a healthy mix of industry workers interested in sampling their colleagues’ creations. INdustri’s owner/executive chef Robert Klemm provided all in attendance with a nine course flight of amuse-bouche playing upon the same theme of local sourcing and Mexican inspiration. His barbecue duck tostadas and lobster hush puppies were the standouts of the menu, along with a savory olive oil ice cream served with roasted corn salsa.
Judges for the event were largely familiar faces, including Ira Koplowitz, co-proprietor of Bittercube bitters; Joey Houghtaling, president of the Milwaukee Chapter of the USBG; Jason Neu, spirits specialist at Ray’s Wine & Spirits; and Ryan West, publisher of Alcoholmanac. Brand Ambassador Gina Castillo represented Don Julio.
After a short prep period in INdustri’s back semi-private dining room, competitors had seven minutes to describe, assemble and serve their cocktails to the five judges seated at the bar, while servers passed out samples to the crowd which were mass-mixed on the side. Sheila Arndt of Blackbird Bar (3007 S. Kinnickinnic Ave.) started the competition with her “Paramount Cherry Blues,” featuring Door County cherry juice and Wisconsin honey infused with Telicherry peppercorns.
Daniel Dufek performed next, with his “Bricks and Mortar.” Using fresh ginger, handmade grapefruit sour and Amerique 1912 Rouge absinthe from Great Lakes Distillery, the drink’s cloudy yellow color was evocative of the Milwaukee Cream City brick, which INdustri’s design features prominently.
Jeff Kinder of downtown’s Distil (722 N. Milwaukee St.) presented “Una Tarde Agridulce,” featuring Bittermens Citron Sauvage grapefruit liqueur, with fresh lime and grapefruit.
Tom Dufek’s outsized personality could not stand in greater contrast to Daniel’s low-key and thoughtful seriousness. In typical form, Tom started the judges out with a joke straight from the pages of GQ. His “Para Todo Bien” incorporated Wisconsin maple syrup and an unexpected kick of cayenne pepper.
Finally, Ian Cliffe of the newly-opened Fink’s (1875 N. Humboldt Ave.) presented his “Maple Dandy,” with Wisconsin maple syrup, fresh lemon juice, and garnished with a floating disc of locally grown Braeburn apples.
As the judges sequestered to deliberate, opinions in the crowd varied widely, but the general consensus was that the competition came down to the brothers Dufek. Tom’s incorporation of cayenne was a populist victory, but also proved divisive for the spice-averse. Daniel’s use of the hibiscus-infused Amerique Rouge was the most daring accent liqueur, but shared a similar palette-dependency to Tom’s use of the pepper.
When the judges returned, Houghtaling, via megaphone, stressed how narrow the final tally had been. But in the end, it was older brother Tom who won both the fan vote as well as the judges’ decision. Their father congratulated them both and then bought them a round at the bar.
Clearly disappointed, Daniel still kept his sense of humor.
“It sucks [losing to your brother],” he said. “But don’t tell the world of my scorn.”
In addition to bragging rights, Tom also won a 1-year renewal of his membership into the USBG, as well as the chance to be one of five bartenders to compete in the national finals on Cinco de Mayo.
Bottom image of Daniel Dufek by Dana Dufek.