HARLEM — For a second time in three years, Naima Williams is the best bartender north of 110th Street.
“I still feel punch drunk from that night,” Williams said. “It feels unreal.”
Bartenders from more than 30 bars throughout Harlem, Washington Heights, the Bronx and East Harlem competed for the title.
During the showdown, 12 finalists competed in a three-round head-to-head matchup that featured a consistency round where they had to pour 300 1-ounce drinks, a speed round where they had to make six drinks in three minutes, and a mystery ingredient round where they had to create a custom cocktail on the spot.
“It’s not just rum and coke anymore,” said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, the executive director of Harlem Park to Park, which helped organized the event. “The art and science behind these mixologists is incredible. They are coming up with very interesting cocktails.”
After Williams won the competition in 2013 she decided to take a break from bartending and got a 9-to-5 job in healthcare.
“I just felt like I needed a break, I needed to sit down,” she said. “It was a lot of late nights, early mornings and I just kind of wanted to change my lifestyle.”
But she couldn’t stay away for long. When Anahi Angelone and Eimear Conway opened Angel of Harlem on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, they knew exactly who to bring in to create their cocktail menu.
“Obviously we are thrilled she won the award,” Conway said. “Anahi was very adamant that we had to have her as part of our team and she was right.”
Williams, who started off the competition by pouring 300 aphrodisiac cocktails, is currently helping the restaurant create their winter cocktail menu, Conway added.
When Williams got back behind the bar she knew the annual competition was a few months away and began preparing, she said.
In previous years, the event has been held at Harlem Tavern. But because of the event’s popularity, they decided to move it to a bigger venue, Evan-Hendricks said.
“We took it to a whole other level this year,” she said. “I think people were really shocked, especially those who have come the last two years. We’ve been wanting to make this competition to be on par with some of the mixology competitions not only Downtown but across the country.”
Winning the title of best bartender has been even sweeter the second time around, Williams said. It reaffirms her hard work and shows other women of color they belong in the industry, Williams said.
“When they said my name I instantly broke down,” she said. “To be able to do it again after taking a break and winning again, that says something to me more than the first year.”