One Thursday evening in mid-December, a pack of intrepid alcohol aficionados convened in search of something “sessionable,” the elusive state a cocktail attains by being so drinkable that its perfect blend alone can support an imbibing session from beginning to end. That means it can’t be too sweet or too pungent – thereby eliminating the desire for drink number two or three – but neither can it be bland, because no one will want it in the first place.

The search was sponsored by Chopin Vodka, a major supporter of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival that, for the second year in a row, is hosting a bartending contest to determine the official cocktails of SBIFF 2010. And given that the February 4 to 14 fest is the 25th annual, this year’s drinks must meet silver anniversary standards, making the competition all the more fierce. (Read about last year’s winner here.)

Embarking on this December evening trek were the fest’s director, Roger Durling, Chopin reps Shelley Turner, Sarah Gorvitz, and Guillaume Grillon, and myself, though I bowed out after two stops – The Indy‘s holiday party was a’callin’ – and let a distribution crew from Southern Wine & Spirits take up my slack. By the end of the romp through the bars and restaurants of Santa Barbara, Montecito, and beyond, six finalists emerged, and those mixologists will be vetted next Thursday, January 14, when the dream team of drinkers reunites to determine the top three cocktails. The victors will have their drinks served at various Chopin-sponsored bars and VIP events, including the opening night bash on February 4, and the number one bartender will get exclusive passes to the 2011 incarnation of the film festival.

Beyond the fun and creative cocktails we consumed, the annual bartending battle is a refreshing show of how an international corporation such as Mo»t Hennessy USA – which owns Chopin Vodka – actually engages the Santa Barbara community throughout the year rather than just dumping in money to support a once-a-year event. “They’re committed to investing in Santa Barbara as a partner,” explained Durling, who landed the corporate support after writing about his love for Chopin Vodka on his blog a couple years ago. “They’ve been actively finding ways not just to promote their product, but to give local businesses more exposure,” Durling said. This contest is just one example of that. “They’ve also launched a major national sweepstakes to get people outside Santa Barbara to visit the festival and, ultimately, Santa Barbara as well,” he explained, pointing people to this website.

This year’s contest actually started in October at the Canary Hotel with a reception for the bartenders, in which the rules were laid out and a few signature Chopin cocktails were poured. “It was an opportunity to explain our sponsorship and commitment to the SBIFF and, most importantly, to the local Santa Barbara bartenders,” explained Turner. “They really are instrumental to the success of our Chopin program during the festival and year-round.” The bartenders then had the month of November to concoct a recipe that was creative but also captured the spirit of Chopin without overpowering its flavor. Submitted drinks could only have a maximum of four ingredients, must use store-bought ingredients (meaning no secret sauce), and had to be presented in the properly selected glass. As for judging, each cocktail would be evaluated for appearance, taste, originality, and the ability to be made in large volumes.

Grant Danely at Tydes.
Matt Kettmann

The results – at least the two I tasted – were impressive. Our first stop was Tydes, the oceanfront restaurant inside the Coral Casino that Biltmore guests are allowed to visit. Bartender Grant Danely offered up wide rimmed glasses of his “Tarrentini,” which mixed the tang of agave-sweetened lemonade with the sweet butteriness of blood orange puree. I drank both mine and Durling’s; he liked the drink but happens to prefer his Chopin straight and icy. Gorvitz, meanwhile, called the drink “sessionable,” introducing a fancy New York City industry word to my vocabulary (and giving a headline to this article). Danely’s drink easily made the finals and, from what I’ve heard, has a good chance of taking the gold. My next and final stop was the Canary, where we sipped a stranger concoction, powerfully flavored with ginger and sage. Durling liked it, but Gorvitz and I were less convinced. It did not make the finals.

Beth Weinberg from Elements.
Shelley Turner

After that, the team headed onto other bars, and determined that, in addition to Danely at Tydes, the following bartenders, cocktails, and establishments were in the running: Jody Mellow’s “Leading Lady” from Tonic; Beth Weinberg’s “Rising Star” from Elements; Ezra Atwill’s “Green Envy” from Lucky’s; Nicole Unruh-Eos’s “The Aristo-cat” from the Wildcat Lounge; and Richard Hollowell’s “Raspberry Encore” from The Willows at the Chumash Casino. On January 14, each of these drinks will be revisited, and the Chopinistas will unveil the top three victors.

“It was really exciting to see how involved some the bartenders got into making and presenting their cocktail,” said Turner of her second year overseeing the contest. “There was a lot of effort and time that when into every cocktail submission. It was really inspiring.”

What follows are the finalists’ recipes.

Jody Mello’s “Leading Lady” at Tonic

2 oz. Chopin
2 oz. Newton Red Label chardonnay (buttery chard)
1 oz. apple puree
splash ginger ale
Served up in a martini glass, stirred not shaken, with apple twist garnish.

Grant Danely’s “Tarrentini” at Tydes

2 oz. Chopin
1 oz. blood orange purree
1 oz. agave lemonade
Shake with ice and pour into martini glass.
Add float of Moet & Chandon Nectar Imperial.
Garnish with vertical lemon wedge and attached mint sprig.

Beth Weinberg’s “Rising Star” at Elements

In a Boston Shaker combine the following ingredients:
2 oz. Chopin
1 oz. Ty Ku Super Premium Junmai Ginjo Sake
1 oz. Ume Plum Royal Sour Drink (Kimura Chuhai mixer)
1/2 oz. Pear Puree (The Perfect Puree)
Fill with ice, shake, and strain into a martini glass, garnish with a slice of star fruit.

Ezra Atwill’s “Green Envy” at Lucky’s

Muddle 4-5 chunks ripe Honey Dew Melon in pint glass with 1/2 oz of Agave Nectar
Add as much ice in pint glass as possible to help get really cold
3 oz. of Chopin, cover and shake until very cold
Strain into a chilled martini glass & garnish with 2-3 melon balls on pick or on glass rim.

Nicole Unruh-Eos’ “The Aristo-cat” at the Wildcat Lounge

1 ½ oz. Chopin
1 oz. White Peach Puree
1 oz. Cranberry Juice
Top with Chandon Brut.
Serve in a low ball glass over ice, garnish with a raspberry and orchid flower.

Richard Hollowell’s “Raspberry Encore” at The Willows

1.5 oz. Chopin
1 oz. Cassis liqueur
1/2 fresh squeezed lime, 2 dash simple syrup, 5 muddled raspberries
Topped with splash of Moet Chandon Imperial float.
Served on the rocks in hi-ball, garnish with 1 raspberry & 1 blackberry on skewer.

Stay tuned to find out who emerges victorious and learn what you might be sipping in February during SBIFF 2010.


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