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Tequila Time!

The World Margarita Championship kicks off the Tucson Culinary Festival

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By time the Sixth Annual World Margarita Championship is over, gallons of tequila will have been poured; tons of ice will have been crushed; hundreds of limes and lemons will have been squeezed; numerous glasses will have been rimmed with salt; and many, many margaritas will have been delightfully consumed.

Most importantly, new champions will have been crowned—and thanks to all of that activity, Arizona's Children Association will receive a most generous donation.

The World Margarita Championship is the kickoff event for the Tucson Culinary Festival. Now in its ninth year, the festival highlights our city's culinary best—which, in this case, means the Tucson Originals, that unique group of local, independent restaurants who have joined together to celebrate the "flavors of Tucson" and give back to the community in numerous ways.

While the contest has been tweaked over the years, the procedure has remained fairly similar.

When attendees enter, they're given a score card with each contestant's name on it. They travel from table to table, in no particular order, dinking, noshing, mingling, listening to the live music—and rating the margaritas. Representatives of the restaurants stamp the card as a person samples their fare.

Unlike in past years, when judges sat on a stage, the contestants will be the ones onstage this year, with the judges in front of them, watching the mixologists create their magic. Contestants will compete in a series of head-to-head battles.

After the votes are all counted, the judges' and the peoples' choice winners are announced. The cocktail glass trophies are then awarded.

Total time from start to finish? Three hours or so.

LITTLE NO LONGER

In the six years since its inception, the Margarita Championship has grown from a tiny, exclusive event into a full-blown party.

The first two events were held at the now-defunct Cuvée World Bistro. Part of the charm of Cuvée was its small, intimate dining area, but what worked for the restaurant was a big problem for the event.

Because of the small space, ticket sales were limited, and even then, the place was packed. Traveling from table to table was a slow and arduous process. The judges were tucked in a corner somewhere. Of course, that's not saying people didn't have fun; in fact, they had so much fun that in the second year, tickets sold out in a matter of hours.

The organizers realized it was time for a change of venue—and the perfect spot came along. Maynards Market and Kitchen, located in the Historic Train Depot downtown, has an expansive patio. Not only is the space outdoors and roomy; it offers a romantic feel and a sense of Tucson's history.

With the new space, more restaurants could participate, and more people could attend.

Eventually, word of the event reached the mixology world, and big names were soon a part of the event. Famous cocktail guru Robert Plotkin, renowned mixologist Tony-Abou Ganim, former Bon Appetit editor Barbara Fairchild, and James Beard Award winner/local radio personality Jennifer English have all been judges.

This year, Dale DeGroff, known as King Cocktail thanks to his status as one of the world's most-respected mixologists, will join English, Plotkin and others on the judges' panel.

The restaurants/bartenders involved have grown from six to nine to 14 in this year's contest.

Past winners include Cuvée, Jax Kitchen and El Charro Café.

PETE AND HAROLD

Last year's people's choice-winning margarita was created by Pete Hoge of Kingfisher Bar and Grill; the judge's choice honor went to the Cup Café's Harold Garland.

Oddly enough, neither of last year's winning margaritas is on the menu at the respective restaurants.

"The lemon paletas were the whole thing," says Hoge of his people's choice winner, referring to the "swizzle stick" lemon ice pop that he created for his drink.

That may be a bit of an exaggeration, since the drink was a delightfully simple mix of Patron Citronge, Tequila Semental and a bit of sour lemon, served in a glass rimmed with smoked sea salt.

Hoge figures he spent about a month and used hundreds of test tubes before he found the right combination for the ice pop. It was a hit at the restaurant for a while, but because the paleta sticks were hard to find, Hoge and team decided to discontinue the margarita.

Later this year, Hoge will be opening a restaurant with Glen Stosius, formerly of RA restaurant, at Mercado San Agustín west of downtown. The as-yet unnamed place will be a French brasserie, and Hogue will be the man behind the beverage program.

The Marguerite Nouveau was the name of Garland's drink.

"Last year, we tried to see how far we could push it, to push the boundaries," says Garland. The drink included Milagro silver tequila and a plethora of other ingredients, all topped with blood-orange foam. The result was a nicely fruity drink.

"We used the best, freshest ingredients available, trying to express the essence and spirit of the tequila," he says.

That philosophy holds true in the creation of his more-traditional entry this year, the Margarita Desnudas.

Garland looks forward to this year's event, because he believes that the competition is great, and because Dale DeGroff is a judge. "It'll be an honor to prepare a drink for him," he says.

After the Margarita Championship, the Tucson Culinary Festival continues with events throughout the weekend. For more info, visit www.tucsonculinaryfestival.com.

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