There was a wealth of intriguing flavor combinations and cutting-edge creativity on display last night at the Wildcat Lounge, where eight bartenders battled for the chance to reach next Thursday’s final round of The Santa Barbara Independent‘s Masters of Mixology Mix-Up. Whether it was blending whiskey with candied figs and a balsamic vinegar reduction or making your own bright blue triple sec and deep red raspberry liqueur or trying to get the judges to suck down shots upside down, the semifinal round offered entertainment, education, and insight into the latest and greatest in the modern world of craft cocktails.
And it wasn’t just the judges and lucky emcee (that’d be me) who got to sample the libations, for each of the bartenders followed their heat by making up another batch for the crowd to try for the easy-drinking price of $1, certainly the happy-hour deal-of-the-night anywhere in town.
Of the eight competitors, four were declared winners by the two panels of four judges each, namely Wildcat owner Bob Stout; graphic designer Scott Wallin, who won this paper’s amateur cocktail competition this past summer; attorney Sonny Chehl, who’s come in second place in the amateur cocktail competition every year we’ve hosted it; the Santa Barbara Downtown Organization’s Ashleigh Davis, who is one of the visionaries behind this October’s epicure.sb celebration of food; and, never shying away from free sips of tasty booze, The Independent‘s own George Yatchisin, Robby Robbins, Brandi Rivera, and Shannon Kelley.
The four moving on to the finals — which go down next Thursday, October 4, at Harry’s Plaza Cafe, 5:30-7:30 p.m. — are, in no particular order:
Alavaro Rojas: Rojas opened Alcazar on the Mesa nearly 13 years ago without a lick of bartending experience — save for a couple gigs as “keg master” in Isla Vista during college — and his first drink, a simple margarita, was sent back because it tasted like “anti-freeze.” Since then, he’s been on “a quest to find, drink, and execute the best cocktails” he can, also opening Milk & Honey on Anapamu Street along the way. His “Lava Cava” featured St. Germain’s elderflower liqueur, hibiscus flower liqueur, fresh-squeezed lime, Spanish cava, organic locally grown raspberry, and caviar lime.
Patrick Reynolds: A musician, philosopher, botanist, actor, and chef — which is his way of saying that “SBCC is too gorgeous to leave” — Reynolds is now a bartender at both the ‘Cats, Hungry and Wild. “I make cocktails like my mom makes soup,” he explained. “Tasty.” His take on a peach cobbler with bacon was called “Smokey and the Bandit,” featuring bourbon, lemon, hickory smoked pistachios, farmers market peaches, and fresh thyme.
Rick Reyes: A “speed bartender” from Chicago, Reyes has worked in such famous Windy City bars as Walter Payton’s Thirty Fourʼs and Studebakerʼs, serving celebrities like Michael Jordan, Barbara Streisand, Jeff Bridges, and more. Today, he makes drinks for Santa Barbara Catering but also infuses intriguing ingredients into a wide range of liquors. They were on full display as part of his “Bomb Pop Martini,” which included infused vodka, infused blue liquor, and infused raspberry liquor, served alongside a cupcake.
Chris Nordella: Currently the assistant food and beverage manager at the Four Seasons Biltmore, Nordella was born and raised in Southern California and has been working in the restaurant biz since he was 16 and working behind bars since 21. At age 17, he started bartending his parents’ backyard parties, developing quite a reputation for impressing the neighbors with his inebriating skills. His “Tequila Fresca” featured Deleon Diamante Tequila with muddled cilantro, celery, serrano chili-infused simple syrup, lime juice, and lemon-lime soda.
The runners-up, whose drinks were also enjoyed by both the judges and many in the crowd alike, were the following:
Richard Hollowell: Currrently the beverage manager for the Chumash Casino and its Willows Restaurant — not to mention the featured mixologist in each issue of Chumash! magazine — Hollowell has bartended nearly everywhere he’s worked, including Holdren’s Steakhouse, StateMynt, and the pre-Tonic place known as 634. “When I turned 18, I didn’t ask my mom for a car,” he explained, “I asked her for a bar!” His “Gathered Rest” — whose name is a reference to a musical composition term as he invented the drink for a Neil Diamond show — featured Grey Goose’s new cherry noir vodka, fresh-squeezed lemon juice, simple syrup, Funkin blueberry puree, and fresh mint.
Drew Morehouse: Before moving to Santa Barbara a year ago, Morehouse was a bartender in his native Hawaii, working for a couple years at the Big Island’s Hilo Bay Cafe, where he made plenty of tropical drinks but also learned from very knowledgeable colleagues. “I was taught to think of food,” said Morehouse, “and that appeals to me when creating original drinks.” Today he works as a bartender, server, and manager at Le Cafe Stella and as a server at Stella Mare’s. His “Tennessee Fig,” which wowed many in the crowd for its creative range of ingredients, included Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey, Jack Daniel’s, anise liqueur, ground cardamon, fresh fig syrup, port wine reduction, white balsamic reduction, and candied fig.
AJ DeNecochea IV: Born and raised in Santa Barbara, DeNecochea is a SBCC student, independent film director, and author who works the bar at East Sushi on State Street. “I love mixing drinks,” he explained. “I’ve always had a curious passion for it. I want to keep pouring and learning.” His “Cucumber Burst Martini” featured organic cucumber vodka, pure Junmai sake, and fresh pineapple juice with a three melon garnish topped with a cucumber butterfly.
Tracie Cherrie: Although currently working as a private investigator, Cherrie has worked at a long list of establishments, including Ventura’s Hungry Hunter and the Madd Bailey’s Pub in Pine Mountain Club amidst the beauty of the Los Padres National Forest, where she would serve the local kids her signature drink when they turned 21. “My last name is pronounced just like the fruit,” she explained. “That is what my drink is named after!” And that drink is the “Inverted Chocolate Covered Cherry,” a simple mix of chocolate vodka, Baileys, and grenadine. “The inverted part is the physical position you have to be in to drink it!” said Cherrie, but she was unable to get any of the judges to lay their heads on the bar. That said, she probably sold about 20 of the shots afterward, so she’s doing something right.
The finals of The Santa Barbara Independent‘s Masters of Mixology Mix-Up are on Thursday, October 4, 5-7:30 p.m., at Harry’s Plaza Cafe (3313 State Street;  687-2800; harryssb.com. The four finalists are allowed to either serve the same drinks they won with on September 27 or come up with something completely new. The event is free to the public, and there’s a no-host bar, but the competitors will also be sharing some of their concoctions for the low price of $1 per drink after each heat.