Santa Barbara’s finest bartenders came together last Thursday, bringing their innovative ingredients and the heartfelt stories behind them to the second annual Official Drink of Santa Barbara Cocktail Contest at El Paseo.
“We invite the public to sample the drinks of some of our region’s most creative mixologists, root for their favorite, and raise a toast to our community’s extraordinarily gifted food and drink professionals,” said Kathy Janega-Dykes, the president and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, which hosted the event along with the Santa Barbara Independent.
Twenty-one businesses submitted entries to independent.com, where the public voted for their favorites, either based on the story alone or after a trip to the participating restaurants for a taste of the drink. After 635 votes were tallied, the finalists invited to the live competition on June 21 were the Biltmore Fuerte by the Four Seasons Resort, The Drive Home by Finch & Fork, the Riviera Hermosa by Santo Mezcal, Puesta del Sol by Loquita, and The American Riviera by Santa Barbara Brewing Company.
During the sold-out event, each finalist had three minutes to set up their bar and then seven minutes to prepare and explain their drink for the panel of judges to taste and score. Aside from encouraging the use of ingredients that were regionally grown, the only other mandatory ingredient was the use of Cutler’s Artisan Spirits as the base liquor, and differing teams used Ian Cutler’s entire range, from his bourbon and gin to Grandma Tommie’s Apple Pie liqueur.
After watching the mixologists of Finch & Fork explain how their cocktail was inspired by the sensory reaction of driving back into Santa Barbara from the south, brought to life with lemon, jasmine foam, and Maldon sea salt, it became clear that these were way more than just drinks. “Ultimately wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve seen, whatever you’ve heard, whatever you’ve experienced, there’s no feeling quite like driving back into Santa Barbara and feeling at home,” explained Finch & Fork’s GM, Josh Blumenthal, while bartender George Piperis prepared the drink. I felt my eyes go a little misty.
Judging the event were Alvaro Rojas, the 2017 Official Drink of Santa Barbara Cocktail Contest Winner and owner of Alcazar Tapas Bar and milk & honey; Matt Kettmann, a senior editor of the Santa Barbara Independent and a contributing editor for Wine Enthusiast; Geneva Ives, author of Unique Eats & Eateries of Santa Barbara; Michael Cervin, author of The Santa Barbara Know-It-All; and Gina Andrews, winner of the associated Local Judge Contest.
As the judges tabulated votes, attendees sampled small cups of each drink. After the public votes were tallied, the People’s Choice Award went to Santo Mezcal’s tasty Riviera Hermosa cocktail, a nod to how our mountains light up as the sun goes down.
But the judges crowned the Biltmore Fuerte as the Official Drink of Santa Barbara. Bartender Samantha Graham from the Ty Lounge explained the backstory, which is as powerful as its Cutler’s 33 Bourbon base. A recent transplant from South Africa, Graham was inspired by the community’s resilience in the face of two natural disasters. She remembered news coverage about a man named Nick Wigle, who owns a bee removal and rescue company called Super Bee Rescue. Thousands of hives were destroyed during the Thomas Fire, and Wigle worked to save both honey and bees looking for new homes. The honey he got from the hives was infused with a sweet and smoky flavor, which Graham knew was the perfect element for their drink.
“Like the Super Bee Rescue honey, we too, have found that out of hardship comes great things,” said Graham, whose cocktail is delightfully accented with Ebby’s Farms strawberries and Four Seasons chef’s garden lemons and lavender flowers. But don’t take my word for it: Graham and her team at the Ty Lounge (1260 Channel Dr.) will be serving their winning drink for the rest of the year.