Sean Thibadaeux and his cocktail
Sean Thibadaeux and his cocktail

Whoever said bartending wouldn’t take you somewhere wasn’t making drinks in the modern age of cocktails.

Sean Thibadeaux is headed to Las Vegas for the second time in his career and on Bombay Sapphire’s nickel. The head bartender and assistant general manager at St. Charles Exchange bested multiple competitors from around Kentucky and Indiana in last week’s regional Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender Competition. His Snap Side Fizz, a clever riff on the mojito, won over a plan of judges from around the country.

The win will see Thibadeaux return to Las Vegas for the finals, his second chance at the top prize in three years.

“I was working in New Orleans when I went the first time, but I wasn’t as good at this as I would like to have been,” said Thibadeaux. “I’m looking forward to going back and doing some damage.”

If you’ve ever watched him work or drunk the fruits of his labor at St. Charles, you know he’s a technician, one of a quickly growing number of craft cocktail makers in town.

“I had to beat a lot of good competition to win the contest for this area,” Thibadeaux said. In Vegas, he’ll represent Kentucky and Indiana. “Isaac Fox (Volare) and Jeremy Johnson (Meta) were there, and a lot of good bartenders from around the state.”

Thibadeaux gin drinkThe Snapside Fizz is basically a twist on the gin mojito, which typically uses cucumbers. But instead of cukes, Thibadeaux muddled snap peas, mint and makrut leaf (commonly known as kaffir lime) in a fleur de sel syrup. Add the Bombay Sapphire gin (my standard cocktail gin, for what it’s worth) some Bitter Truth Celery Bitters and shake briefly with ice in a metal shaker. Thibadeaux then removes the top, adds soda water and pours the whole thing through a strainer into an iced Collins glass.

“You’re not supposed to call it kaffir anymore because that’s supposedly an offensive term to Muslims,” Thibadeaux said. “So explaining to people what makrut leaf is takes some time.” (Editor’s note: It’s actually the equivalent to the “n” word in South Africa. Highly offensive and legally actionable in that country.)

Thibadeaux chose Bitter Truth for its highly floral and lemongrass notes “that show up on the botanical list in Sapphire. It’s also something that I like best for cocktails this light, and since the judges wanted the drinks to be seasonal, that’s where I went with it.”

By chance, I bumped into Fox at a wine tasting the same day of the competition. After telling me about the drink he’d make later that night, he said, “I think sometimes these judges are looking at these competitions with a ‘weirder the better’ mentality.”

Thibadeaux said he’s seen that in some cocktail challenges, but he still chose to play his cards a bit conservatively in getting the win.

“I just kept thinking seasonal, seasonal, which is how I came up with the snap peas,” he said, adding that he always builds his drinks on a ratio of 2 ounces of spirits, ¾-ounce of an acid and ¾-ounce of a sweetener. “That’s a baseline recipe for all good drinks. You can start there and then play around with all the rest.”

Thibadeaux’s trip marks the third straight for a St. Charles Exchange bartender. SCE alumnus Michael Anderson (now a consultant with Hawthorn Beverage), represented the region in 2013 and 2012, while Gary Gruver (now a cocktail instructor with Southern Wine & Spirits) bore the Louisville mantel in 2011 with his Fleur de Lis. (This is an absolutely delicious cocktail you should try at home.)

Thibadeaux’s looking forward to the national finals in September. If he wins that cocktail event, he’ll go to the global competition in Europe.

“You get to the global thing … that’s where things go off the deep end and get really fascinating,” he said. “For this part of it, it’s a fun trip. I’ll be in GQ magazine in a big spread with the 51 others and on the cover if I win it nationally.”

Until he leaves, he’ll be “workshopping and perfecting it the whole time. I really want to be ready for this.”

Need any more reason to help him practice? Go do your civic duty and have a Snap Side Fizz.

Or make one at home with this recipe:

Snap Side Fizz

2 ozs. Bombay Sapphire
1 oz. makrut Leaf, mint and fleur de sel syrup
.75 oz. fresh-squeezed lime juice
1 dash Bitter Truth Celery Bitters
1 sugar snap pea
2 ozs. seltzer

Muddle snap pea with syrup. Add balance of ingredients except seltzer and shake well with ice. Add 2 ozs. seltzer to shaker tin. Double strain over fresh ice and garnish with a snap pea “fan” and mint sprig.

 

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Steve Coomes
Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 24-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Louisville magazine, Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass and Food & Dining Magazine. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.