As JCT.'s fourth-annual Attack of the Killer Tomato Festival approaches, we caught up with Lara Creasy, beverage director for JCT., No. 246, and The Optimist, to learn more about the festival and what it's like to make drinks with tomatoes.
Can you describe how the festival works?
For the attendees, they basically walk around and have the opportunity to sample everything that people have created for the festival, obviously everything created with tomatoes, and then the judging part happens. We have celebrity judges usually from the food and beverage community that come and sample everything as well, and they choose winners. They usually crown a king and a queen for the festival of each category, and then they also do some crowd favorites for the “most original” and things like that.
And the cocktail competition component?
We have 12 mixologists participating this year. Each of them is assigned a spirit that they have to work with, then they create a cocktail around the spirit and it has to include tomatoes.
What spirit will you be working with this year?
So there are four spirits we have to work with: Ole Smoky Moonshine, Kanon Organic Vodka, Farmers Organic Gin, and Don Julio Tequila. I'll be working with Old Smokey Moonshine. There are three of us working with moonshine this year.
What’s the competition like? Friendly, fierce?
I think that its pretty friendly and light-hearted. I mean, the festival itself is sort of tongue and cheek and kind of fun. People take it seriously and they definitely do some great work, both the chefs and the mixologists, but I think that it is definitely a little bit more on the fun side. It’s not really the type of competition where you’re like, “Oh, I gotta take him down this year.” I think it’s just fun. I do notice though, we give out these funny prizes when people win. They aren’t really trophies. We give out little tiaras or crowns, or a rubber chicken, just stuff like that instead of actual prizes. And the people that have won, will usually display them at their bar. It's sort of a fun little bragging right.
What can you tell me about using tomatoes as an ingredient in cocktails?
The first year I used peaches with it and that worked out really well. I’ve done it mixed with watermelon before. It goes really well with citrus, with lemon, with lime. And the things that seem more obvious like herbs, or certain types of spices or celery, definitely lend their talents as well. Then again, if you were to oven dry it or pickle it or something like that, it takes the flavor in a totally different direction. There are so many different tomatoes to choose from and there are a lot of different flavors that you can coax out of them.
Is there a specific type of tomato you like to use in cocktails?
I think everybody knows in advance what they would like to use. And they do have a distinct difference. Like with Crystal Organic Farm we can get these little tiny Sun Gold tomatoes from them. They are the ones that look like little grape or cherry tomatoes and they are yellow, and they are just so sweet. It’s crazy how much they are just like fruit. A Sun Gold obviously lends itself to a cocktail more than using a big beef-steak tomato, which is definitely what people think of more as that traditional tomato flavor.
Are there any challenges when using tomatoes in a drink?
I think it does present certain challenges. You know, when we first started, the people organizing it just kind of thought Bloody Marys were kind of the only frame of reference for tomato cocktails. But I think if you are an experienced chef or mixologist, then you understand what influence sugar and acid have when used in a recipe. Then you just have to factor that in when you are using something like a tomato. If you think of a tomato as fruit, which I always tend to do, they have a fair amount of natural sweetness to them in addition to acidity.
What kinds of interesting things have you seen people come up with over the years?
I don’t really see anyone doing the Bloody Mary just because it seems too obvious and people prefer something a little more exciting. But I have seen people doing everything from oven roasting the tomatoes to make them more concentrated and sweet. Last year I made mine into a gastrique, which is a cooked down kind of vinegary-type of sauce, and I used that in my cocktail. There is a lot that can be done and I think people have taken it an interesting direction.
How long have you been planning this year's recipe?
It’s hard to start planning if you don’t know what your spirit is going to be. So, I can’t say that I thought about it too far in advance. And to be honest, we’ve been opening The Optimist, which is our new front, right down the street from JTC. It just opened in May and so it’s been consuming a whole lot of my time so I’m kind of getting down to the wire.
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