Four of Santa Barbara’s best bartenders brought out their big guns on Thursday night to compete in the final round of The Santa Barbara Independent‘s Masters of Mixology professional cocktail competition, which was hosted by Harry’s Plaza Café and attended by an occasionally standing-room-only crowd in the historic restaurant’s El Ranchero Room. When all the ice had melted, restaurateur Alvaro Rojas — who owns Alcazar and Milk & Honey, among connections to many other establishments — was crowned the cocktail king, taking home the inaugural Silver Shaker Award and a suite of more than $300 in other prizes.
Rojas opened Alcazar on the Mesa 13 years ago with no real bartending experience, quickly having his first attempt at a margarita rejected for resembling anti-freeze. But on Thursday, his dozen or so years of learning shined brightly. His winning drink was roughly the same one he served in last week’s semifinals at the Wildcat Lounge: the Lava Cava, whose base of Spanish bubbly is enhanced with elderflower and hibiscus liqueurs, hand-squeezed lime juice, organic raspberries, and the bizarre caviar lime, its tiny, roe-like citrus nodules “doing a boogie” with the cava bubbles. To quite literally sweeten the deal, Rojas served the drink alongside a Spanish tapas of peaches, crêpe, and cream, and explained the origins of each cocktail ingredient, as well as the history of tapas, while mixing up his libation.
The evening’s runners-up were no less creative and impressive with their offerings, which made judging a challenging affair. And you can take my word for it, as I was a lucky judge, as were our columnists Barney Brantingham, Harry’s general manager Kevin Hebert, and Mel’s Lounge bartender Fran Reed, who has been serving drinks for 46 years. Holding it altogether was emcee Robby Robbins, The Independent‘s multimedia sales manager and snappiest dresser.
First up was Chris Nordella of the Four Seasons Biltmore, whose Tequila Fresca blended the nearly savory, certainly herbal effects of muddled cilantro and celery with the spice of serrano-infused simple syrup, tang of lime juice, zest of lemon-lime soda, and warmth of DeLeón Diamante Tequila (which is co-owned by one of the Coral Casino’s members). It was a refreshingly spicy treat.
Next was the musically enhanced stylings of Patrick Reynolds, who pours at both the Wildcat and Hungry Cat. His drink, the Hot Tamale, was nothing short of eye-opening, in that its base was a corn tortilla-infused Tito’s Vodka, which tastes even better than it sounds. Add to that a cinnamon/chile simple syrup, fresh orange and lime juice, and a candied, sugar-dusted jalapeño flower. People should infuse bread products into drinks more often, it seems.
Rojas was up third, and then came Chicago-raised “speed bartender” Rick Reyes, who brought along a special contraption of glass tubes on a wooden frame that looked best suited for alchemy but actually turned out to be a Japanese coffee maker. Currently an employee of SBB Catering, Reyes combined some liquors he had personally infused — berry vodka, raspberry liqueur, blue curacao with tangerines — along with homemade lemonade slushy into his Bomb Pop Martini, topped with a raspberry on a stick and served alongside a raspberry tart. Quite sweet, yes, but smooth and perfect for dessert. Just don’t drive anywhere afterward.
Upon hearing that he was declared victor, Rojas beamed a big smile, hugged his friends in attendance, shook the judges’ hands, proudly accepted the Silver Shaker Award, and then gave an interview to the television crew in attendance from KEYT. In addition to the award, Rojas took home a bottle of RND Vodka (rndvodka.com), a bottle of Partida Tequila (partidatequila.com), $20 in movie tickets to Metropolitan Theatres (metrotheatres.com), a $85 whale watching trip on the Condor Express (condorexpress.com), and a $100 gift certificate to Olio e Limone or Olio Pizzeria (olioelimone.com; oliopizzeria.com).
The second annual Masters of Mixology bartending contest is scheduled for spring 2013 and will include both professional and amateur rounds. Details, venues, and sponsors are still being lined up, but if you pour drinks and are interested in being on the mailing list, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org today.