Bartender of the Year Phoenix Finalist Inspired by Failures for Winning Cocktail

— February 24, 2020

Heaven Hill Brands, announce fourth finalist for 2020 “Bartender of the Year”

BARDSTOWN, KY –Michael Buonocore, Bartender at Guard and Grace in Denver, was announced as the Heaven Hill Brands and Phoenix finalist for the 2020 Bartender of the Year Competition. Buonocore won first place, $1,000, and a trip to the finals at Half Mile Farm in Highlands, North Carolina.

In the second round of the semifinal competition, contestants created the inspired cocktail submitted as a recipe in the preliminary round. Buonocore crafted the “Collegiate Peaks” inspired by the mountain range featuring Mt. Harvard and Mt. Princeton, utilizing Rittenhouse Rye, Sacred Bond Brandy, Dubonnet Rouge Grand Aperitif and Domaine de Canton French Ginger Liqueur (see recipe at end of release).

“In 2017, I decided to fulfill my dream of heading west and departed my beloved Philadelphia for the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Upon arriving in the Centennial State, I attempted two 14,000 ft mountains quite early into my time dwelling at high altitude. The first, Mt. Sneffels, scared the life out of me as I experienced, firsthand, what it felt like to get stuck near the top of a summit with your back to a rather large fall. I wasn’t able to complete that first 14,000+ foot mountain that day, but I was able to walk away in one piece with a newfound respect for balance and planning,” said Buonocore. “’Collegiate Peaks’ is an exercise in balance and reminds me just how important a well-balanced life can be when behind the bar or out in the world chasing new goals. When seeking balance, sometimes you fail (just like the ascent up Mt. Sneffels). But it’s not important whether you fail, but rather, whether you learn from the failure moving forward.”

Austin Carson, 2019 finalist and Owner/Founder of Bistro Georgette in Denver won second place and $500. Buonocore and Carson were joined by four other semifinalists as they competed regionally in Phoenix on Monday, Feb. 17 at Century Grand. Bartenders competed in three rounds, the first two featuring the classic cocktail and inspired cocktail from their preliminary submission. For the final round, bartenders created a custom drink for a fictional bar menu using a minimum of 1.5 ounces of at least one Heaven Hill brand not previously featured in one of their cocktails including Domaine de Canton French Ginger Liqueur, Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon, PAMA Pomegranate Liqueur, and Rittenhouse Rye Whisky, as well as Dubonnet Rouge Aperitif, Sacred Bond Brandy, or Lunazul Tequila. Contestants and judges were then invited to a family dinner at Ocean 44 and professional development with Jason Asher, Owner and Founder of Barter & Shake Creative Hospitality and Owner of Century Grand. Asher spoke to the importance of storytelling not only in competition, but also as way to connect with your guests. He demonstrated the impact of this ability as he shared the story of his career which centered around hard work, humility and gratefulness.

National Spirits Specialist and Portfolio Mixologist for Heaven Hill Brands Lynn House, Author and Bar Manager of Clyde Common & Pépé Le Moko Jeffrey Morgenthaler, and Asher judged the semifinalists’ cocktails and chose one finalist based on highest scores. Contestants’ skills and cocktails were scored on flavor, appearance, presentation, technical skills, use of sponsor brands, and adherence to judges’ guidelines.

More than 1,150 original cocktail recipes were submitted online nationwide beginning September 15, 2019. Preliminary entries required two original cocktail recipes, one rendition of a classic recipe, and one relating to an inspiration, along with a short description of how the cocktail represents a deep inspiration to their life. The top contestant from each region will go on to vie for the title of Bartender of the Year and $15,000 at Half Mile Farm in Highlands, North Carolina from June 15-18, 2020. Finalists will be challenged on their full range of skills as hospitality professionals. Judges will be looking for the ultimate bartender who displays the total breadth and aptitude all bartenders aspire to embody.

Grounded in the original Bartender of the Year Competition hosted by Domaine de Canton starting in 2009, Heaven Hill Brands resurrected the competition due to strong demand from bartenders worldwide and with a goal of supporting growth, education and awareness in the bartending community. Justin Ware of Night Shift in Houston was the 2019 Bartender of the Year and will return as a guest judge for the finals. Ware joined the ranks of esteemed past winners: Harrison Ginsberg from Crown Shy in New York City was named Bartender of the Year in 2018, Nathan O’Neill from the Nomad Bar was named Bartender of the Year in 2017, and Abigail Gullo of Ben Paris in Seattle won the inaugural competition in 2016. Visit the official competition website at for complete competition details.

Collegiate Peaks

Crafted by Michael Buonocore


  • Rittenhouse Rye Whisky (1.5 ounces)
  • Sacred Bond Brandy (.5 ounce)
  • Dubonnet Rouge Aperitif (.75 ounces)
  • Angostura bitters (1 dash)
  • Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur (Teaspoon)
  • Earl Grey-infused maple syrup* (.5 teaspoon)

*Earl Grey Maple Syrup: Add 5g Earl Grey Tea and 250g Grade B Maple Syrup to a container to hold for 45 minutes. Strain through chinois. Place in storage vessel, label, date, refrigerate.

Instructions: In a chilled mixing glass, combine ingredients, drop Kold draft ice, and stir until properly chilled and diluted. Strain into chilled Nick & Nora glass. Express Lemon peel over top of the drink and discard.


Lauren Cherry
Heaven Hill Brands

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