S.D. Strong Distilling’s Pillar 136 Gin might have launched just in May, but it’s already made a splash by winning top honors at the recent Washington Cup Competition.
It wasn’t easy — the contest conducted recently in Kansas City included almost 130 American-made spirits and liqueurs, many from better-known producers. But letting small and often new brands shine is exactly what the event’s about.
“The Washington Cup is delighted to bring the public and trade’s attention to a number of spirits, both new and well-established, that we believe are excellent and genuinely American made,” a news release said.
Certainly Strong is happy to be among them. He opened the distillery in 2012 in the Parkville Commercial Underground, so his products carry the distinction of having been made in a cave. S.D. Strong first released its eponymous vodka, and then followed with Pillar 136, a gin named for his address in the cave.
Strong developed the formula, tempering the initial juniper flavor with notes of blood orange, lemon, lime, ginger, angelica root, orris root and licorice root to create a balanced profile.
“We were thrilled to be selected as one of the overall winners,” Strong said. “We felt like Pillar 136 Gin was great, but to have others judging, including members of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, was really rewarding and validating.”
The competition is unusual in that it employs a three-stage judging process that begins with industry professionals evaluating spirits in a blind setting. Those that earn gold and silver medals advance to the second round — that’s where those bartenders come in. They also blind-taste each spirit, and then create cocktails to showcase those with the highest scores.
This year, 11 finalists advanced to the final phase: a public cocktail tasting (also blind, meaning the spirits being used weren’t identified) held during the Paris of the Plains Cocktail Festival in Kansas City earlier this month.
Out of those, six entries received what a news release called a plurality of votes and were presented with the Washington Cup award. S.D. Strong’s gin was the sole local recipient of the cup, which also went to Buffalo Trace Distillery’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Heaven Hill Brands’ Elijah Craig Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey and Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey, Koval Distillery’s Dry Gin and Wildwood Spirits Co.’s Stark Vatten Vodka.
Other Kansas City area competitors included J. Rieger & Co., with Midwestern Premium Vodka that garnered a gold medal. Released earlier this year, it’s a blend of potato, corn and wheat spirits distilled in a copper pot still.
“A big part of our brand and our company is bartenders and making sure everything we make is cocktail-friendly,” says Ryan Maybee, co-founder of the East Bottoms distillery. “Being awarded a gold medal from that group means a lot.”
J. Rieger’s Kansas City Whiskey also claimed a silver medal. On the Kansas side, Lenexa-based Dark Horse Distillery brought home a trio of bronzes for its Reunion Rye Whiskey Barrel Strength, Long Shot White Whiskey and Rider Vodka.
The Strong Word
One of the perks of receiving a Washington Cup award in the Washington Cup Competition is that winners also get the cocktail recipe created for the spirit as part of the judging process. Here’s the one featuring S.D. Strong Distilling’s Pillar 136 Gin, created by Extra Virgin’s Berto Santoro.
Makes 1 drink
1-1/4 ounces S.D. Strong Pillar 136 Gin
3/4 ounces Green Chartreuse
3/4 ounces fresh-squeezed lime juice
3/4 ounces Paolo Lazzaroni maraschino liqueur
1 to 2 dashes St. George Absinthe
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker and add ice. Shake, and then strain into a cocktail glass.
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_ life.wordpress.com.