"In New York, you see a very rigid classical approach to making cocktails," says competition founder Ryan Maybee. "While in San Francisco, say, you have this serious farm-to-bar approach. Here in Kansas City, we've got a great marriage of the two."
"In the first few years, no one knew what to expect. Is this a flair competition? Are people going to be flipping bottles and stuff?" said Maybee. "It's not. The bartenders here are judged on their knowledge, technique, creativity, presentation, and flavor."
Selected from hundreds of heartland mixologists, the dozen finalists make it to the ultimate round of the competition after entering their own signature cocktail recipes. Maybee and his co-founder Doug Frost evaluate the cocktails based on the mixologists' apparent understanding of structure and balance, and invite the creators of the top concoctions to compete on stage in Kansas City. This year's competitors range from Jennifer Tosato -- a veteran bartender who submitted a drink calling for a rock-candy stir-stick -- to Chris Conaster, the inventor of the "Tit for Tat," a gin cocktail infused with local roadside flora.
Throughout the final stage of the competition, the 12 finalists must build their original cocktail for the judges, who then select a classic drink that must be made on the spot. The winner takes away a cash prize, and bragging rights for taking midwestern drink culture beyond beer and bourbon. Want to pick a bartender to root for? Check out the official competitor bios, complete with winning recipes, here.