Chow Town

Extra Virgin’s Paige Unger wins Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition

From gastriques and flames to yuzu juice, wasabi and Tiki bitters — the

Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition

had it all.

A dozen of the Midwest’s best bartenders showcased their creativity and skill at the Uptown Sunday night, and Paige Unger of

Extra Virgin

went home the winner.

Jenn Tosatto of

The Rieger Hotel Grill Exchange

placed what the judges called a very close second, while Scott Tipton of

The Kill Devil Club

was third.

Beau Williams of the

Hawthorne Julep Cocktail Club

and Mandi Kowalski of


in St. Louis shared the Fan Favorite award.

The fourth time was a charm for Unger, who competed as a finalist in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 bartending competitions. She also won the 2013 Speed Rack Midwest, a women-only bartending competition, and last year completed the BARSmarts Advanced bartender and certification program created by Beverage Alcohol Resource and Pernod Ricard USA.

Unger has long approached cocktails from a culinary standpoint and this year was no exception. She combined Beefeater gin, a beet shrub (beet-infused, sweetened vinegar), lemon juice, Campari and St-Germain elderflower liqueur in her The Beet Goes On cocktail, which was at once earthy, savory and sweet.

“It’s really a year-round cocktail,” says Unger, who created the drink about six months ago and expects it to remain on the Extra Virgin menu going into fall.

But it wasn’t enough to make her own drink for the judges, who included Doug Frost, PopFest’s co-founder; Chris Patino, director of brand education for Pernod Ricard USA; Sean Kenyon, owner of Williams and Graham in Denver, and James Beard Award-winning chef Celina Tio.

Unger also had to batch her drink for the public tasting room. Once onstage, she had just five minutes to mix her own and the judges’ call drink, which turned out to be a Blood Sand. The classic combines Scotch whiskey, Cherry Heering liqueur, sweet vermouth and orange juice into a surprisingly smooth and balanced drink.

“It’s one of my favorite cocktails,” Unger told the crowd. “The first time I heard what was in it, I thought it was disgusting, but it turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever had.”

Clearly, the judges thought so, too.

Paige Unger of Extra Virgin won the Paris of the Plains Bartending Competition with this easy-to-make original cocktail.

The Beet Goes On Makes 1 drink

For the beet shrub:

1 cup of beets 1 cup of white vinegar 1 cup of sugar

For the drink:

1 ounce of Beefeater gin 1/2 ounce of summer beet shrub (instructions below) 1/2 ounce of freshly squeezed lemon juice 1/2 ounce of Campari 1/2 ounce of St-Germain elderflower liqueur Rosemary sprig, for garnish To prepare the beet shrub:

Peel and dice 1 cup beets, set aside. Combine white vinegar and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer. Add beets, turn off heat, cover and allow to sit for 45 minutes. Strain beets, reserving liquid — that’s the shrub — for cocktails. The diced beets will be lightly pickled and can be used in salads or other dishes.

To prepare the drink:

Combine gin, shrub, lemon juice, Campari and St-Germain in a cocktail shaker; shake and strain into an ice-filled Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with rosemary sprig.

Anne Brockhoff is an award-winning spirits writer who writes a monthly column for The Star’s Food section, as well as food features. She blogs at food_drink_ .