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Photographs by Kristin Burke Hynes
Above: Erik Zeiss of Sign of the Whale

Summer is barely over and we’re already recalling the times we kicked back with a fruity cocktail and enjoyed a treat in a glass. Like the time when 400 friends and neighbors turned out for the annual Best Bartender contest at Harbor Point. Tropical flavors reigned this year, and former Best Bartender champ Erik Zeiss reclaimed his title with a smoking watermelon sangría. Here he shares what inspired his cocktail and what it means for him to repeat.

How does it feel to win the Best Bartender title again?
[It] feels great. This year there was stiffer competition. Being my third time [competing], I knew if I wanted to earn my title back I really had to bring it. Out of all the competitions I have done, the Stamford Magazine Best Bartender is the most fun because you can be 100 percent creative with every detail of your cocktail.

How did you come up with the winning cocktail?
Full disclosure: I had no idea what I was going to do until a few hours before the contest. I drove to the grocery store and saw that watermelons were on sale… Then I went to the liquor store to see what jumped out at me, and the first thing I walk into is the red wine section. “Boom,” [I thought], “I’ll make a watermelon sangría!” I didn’t even make a test batch; I was confident that my drink would have the approval of everyone who tasted it. But I [also] knew to win I would have to add a wow factor. That’s where using the dry ice came into play.

Looking ahead, what’s your go-to drink as soon as temperatures drop?
My mom’s side of the family is from Nebraska and we are big into hot toddys. I also was taught a neat drink by my friend from Trinidad called ponche de crema [a sweet, milk-based punch mixed with rum, bitters and nutmeg]. It is a great holiday drink.

Is there anything you would like to add?
There are so many phenomenal bartenders in Stamford that holding the title again is a very humbling experience. I would also like to thank everyone I work with at Sign of the Whale and all our loyal customers who make going to work every day and coming up with cocktail ideas a rewarding experience.

They were so close!

left: Rob Johnson, April DeMaio, Sara Oberhammer of Cask Republic
right: Michael Sobelman, Will Lin, Chris Messina of Harlan Social



• Watermelon
• Mint
• Red wine
• Coconut rum
• Triple Sec
• Watermelon schnapps
• Pineapple and orange juice
• Sprite

Chop watermelon into 1-inch cubes.
Chop mint for garnish.
Mix wine, rum, Triple Sec, schnapps and juice in a shaker; strain over ice. Top off with Sprite and garnish with fruit and mint.
“There’s no exact measurements to follow. It’s just wine and whatever else you want to put in it.” says Zeiss. “You can also garnish with an orange or lemon slice.”


What are people drinking? Zeiss tells us.
1. Beer: Summer ales and shandys
2. Canned cocktails: Spiked Seltzer and Fishers Island Lemonade
3. Tequila: “It is replacing Jameson and Fireball as the most called-for shot.”



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