YOUNTVILLE — From restaurants, wine bars and resorts around Napa County came mixologists to the Top Drink competition, each arriving with twists of fruits, spices and imagination.
In the heart of the California wine country, the Napa Valley Museum hosted its fifth annual battle of the bars, pitting cocktail and food mavens from Napa to Calistoga with muddlers, shakers and strainers for the honors of the year’s finest mixed drink, hors d’oeuvres and food-wine pairings. More than 230 customers visited a cluster of booths turned cocktail bars outside the museum building to sample a kaleidoscope of flavors, from avocado to ras el hanout (a North African spice blend) to Japanese yuzu fruit.
Top Drink, which debuted in 2012, is a fundraiser for the Napa Valley Museum, whose leaders describe the focus on craft cocktails as a pitch to younger Napans as much as for donations.
“We do this more for the visibility and the audience that we don’t get with other events – and because it’s just fun,” said Jessica Penman, development manager for the nonprofit museum in Yountville. “It reaches more of a millennial and Gen X crowd; part of it is the price point and part of it is the event itself.”
As at past Top Drinks, each team was required to include in its cocktails one ingredient chosen by the organizers. When the mixologists learned they all would have to fold pomegranate-flavored Charbay vodka into their creations, the Andaz hotel’s lead bartender pondered how to pull a cold-weather fruit into the spirit of the late spring.
“Pomegranates are a winter fruit; trying to get into a spring and summer line is difficult,” said Vince Lundeen, who mixes cocktails at the hotel’s Mercantile Terrace and Mercantile Social. “It’s a bolder flavor than you’d normally see in the spring.”
Into his concoction went all manner of tongue-brightening additions – pineapple-basil syrup and lemon juice, joined by vanilla liqueur and finished with Cocchi Americano, an aperitif wine.
Elsewhere among the pitched tents outside the museum, Joe Ogdie of the Solage resort in Calistoga prepared a cocktail he said would welcome the pomegranate flavor rather than compete with it.
Joining the flavored vodka were lemon juice, sweet vermouth and a veritable spice rack of ingredients that inspired its creator to christen the drink the Marrakesh Express, after the song by Crosby, Stills and Nash. Those taking a sip also could sample bite-size squares layered with chicken liver mousse, graham cracker crust and a blueberry gelée on top.
Exotic though its ingredient list might be, the Marrakesh Express had its inspiration in a far more classic cocktail, according to Ogdie, Solage’s director of food and beverage services.
“The best lemon drop I ever made was with a pomegranate vodka,” he said as guests began lining up for their 1-ounce tipples. “At the end of the day, this is an exotic lemon drop – or at least a cousin of it.”
Long before Top Drink guests voted for the winning teams – Oenotri of Napa for the best drink, Ca’Momi of Napa with the leading dish, the Solage’s Solbar for the top food-drink combination – some visitors felt themselves winners simply for being able to partake of one-of-a-kind cocktails, even one created by staff from the museum itself.
“I was delighted by the Bloody Mary beet drink,” said Katie Corna of Napa, referring to Mary Drop the Beet, the museum’s ruddy take on a Bloody Mary. “It was spicy and really good, and I had no idea that combination could ever work.”
“It’s dangerous – they’re all so delicious!” she added, laughing.