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Local cocktail competition names five 'Prairie' winners

When a group of drink experts packed in a limo pull up to your restaurant for a cocktail, not every bartender is ready with a winning recipe. But Katie Oleson Shackelford was.

Oleson Shackelford was the grand champion of Prairie Organic Spirits Contest, a cocktail competition held June 10 to jump-start awareness of Minnesota-made Prairie Vodka in Michiana. The competition was organized by Indiana Wholesale Wine & Liquor, area distributor for the  organic vodka, and by Phillips Distilling Company, the vodka’s distiller.

The champion drink was “Cool as a Cucumber,” a cocktail Oleson Shackelford created using Prairie cucumber vodka, St. Germaine, fresh lime juice and diced cucumbers, and topped with cucumber soda, a splash of cranberry and orange flower water. She has worked at Corndance Tavern in Mishawaka since the bar opened four years ago but has been making cocktails for over a decade.

Seven judges sat at the bar during business hours; Oleson Shackelford mixed her drink for each one, imagining “what I would want to drink if I was sitting on a patio,” she said. “It was refreshing but not overcomplicated.”

Jay Fields and Ami Butler Tack of Indiana Wholesale Wine & Liquor approached cocktail bars in South Bend and Mishawaka that were using Prairie Vodka, inviting them to participate in the company’s first area cocktail competition. They also both served as judges.

Other judges included Ashley Olson, Michelle Wargo and Derek Swisher of Prairie Vodka/Phillips Distilling Company in Minneapolis, Minn., and guest celebrity mixologists Jason Bodley of Oak & Alley in Warsaw and Kendall Lockwood of The Ball & Biscuit in Indianapolis, rated each drink on a five-point scale.

Cocktails were judged on ingredients, name, presentation, creativity and taste. The only requirement was to use one of Prairie’s products: 80-proof vodka, cucumber-flavored vodka or gin.

A similar contest was held in the Michigan City area the next day, on June 11. Butler Tack said the contest went so well that Indiana Wholesale may try it again with other spirits. 

“We rented a limo bus and traveled to each of the restaurants,” Butler Tack said. “Competition was close; cocktails were only within a few points of each other.”

Morgans and Little Black Dog Tavern in Mishawaka came in a close second with bartender Heather Young’s “Blazing Bloody Mary.” She created a hot and spicy cocktail made with UV Sriracha, cucumber vodka and sweet and sour, garnished with a prosciutto-wrapped celery stalk, shrimp and a rim of Old Bay.

Shawn Dickens created the “Ruberry” at East Bank Emporium Restaurant in South Bend, a fruity drink featuring fresh strawberries and rhubarb from a local farmer’s market, 80-proof vodka and a house-made honey rhubarb simple syrup.

At the Mark Dine & Tap in South Bend, Chris Ferrer, restaurant manager, and Kelly Evanoff, bartender, served up a vesper-inspired cocktail called “Prairie Home Compaignon,” with gin, St. Germaine, orange liqueur, lemon lime and Sauvignon Blanc.

A “Cucumber Mint Cooler,” the work of bartender John Ravencroft at Scotty’s Brewhouse in Mishawaka, had cucumber mint cooler with fresh mint, house-made cucumber mint simple syrup and cucumber vodka.

Each restaurant will feature its cocktail creation on the menu for the summer.

A similar contest was held in the Michigan City area the next day, June 11.

“Prairie Vodka become recently available in Michiana area,” Butler Tack said. “We’re launching the brand locally. This was first contest we’ve done here, and it went over so well, we may try it with other spirits.”

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