YOUNTVILLE — A friendly competition attracted nine restaurants showcasing some of the North Bay wine country’s best liquid refreshment, and hundreds of guests to help choose a winner. But this battle was no clash of cabernets or chardonnays.
Instead, mixologists clashed Sunday afternoon in the fourth annual Top Drink, a contest with weapons of shakers, strainers, muddlers and ingredients ranging from brandied cherries to lemon verbena foam and even chocolate bitters.
From such ingredients emerged creations with names like the Midnight Marauder, Blood Sucker Punch, Auberge Sunset. The prize: a year’s renown for crafting the tastiest, most inventive cocktail in the Napa Valley.
The boom in craft cocktails made with fresh ingredients was well underway when the Napa Valley Museum hosted its first Top Drink in 2011. But according to Kristie Sheppard, the museum’s executive director, staging a battle of the bartenders was less about riding a fad than about turning the valley’s growing ranks of fine restaurants into partners. (Proceeds from Top Drink benefit the museum.)
“We tried to think of something different, because we see wine-and-cheese events here all the time,” she said. “And we thought this was a wonderful way to get restaurants to help the museum.”
Each team — one from El Dorado Hotel & Kitchen in Sonoma, the rest from restaurants and resorts across Napa County — was tasked with producing one cocktail and a food to pair with it. While the rules required all contestants to use blood-orange vodka from Charbay, an event sponsor, in their drinks, the rest was left to their imaginations.
Jan Russell eagerly ran with hers.
“I wanted to do something dark and mysterious, so I did chocolate and orange,” said the bartender of the Bardessono resort’s Lucy restaurant — one of two home teams at the Yountville museum — as she whipped her shaker back and forth. Inside the metal canister mingled the orange-infused vodka and chocolate bitters with blackberry and a Lebanese seven-spice syrup, which she then poured into iced 1-ounce cups.
“Most people don’t like chocolate and orange together, but I just thought, what the hell. I’m addicted to coffee so I had to add that, too!” she said with a wink. “And I like things dark — when I watch movies I usually root for the villain — so for the name I went with ‘Midnight Marauder.’”
For Hillary Alexander, the contest had taken on a life far beyond her day job as the bar manager at Angèle in downtown Napa.
“I’ve been brainstorming this stuff for I don’t know how long!” she said during an unceasing, hyperactive round of shaking, pouring and gabbing with the passers-by who sampled her Eternal Harvest beverage. “I’ve been thinking about it for a couple months — but the syrup, I came up with the recipe just in the last four days.”
Alexander’s last-minute inspiration had been the addition of caramelized fennel syrup to a concoction of lemon, bitters and fennel. In contrast to Bardessono’s muscular chocolate aroma, she would let the orange vodka – and nothing else – carry her cocktail’s kick.
Alexander’s fennel-tinged cocktail soon gained another vote. “I like it — their creativity is awesome. She’s in my running,” Lorae Salmonese, visiting from New York, said with a laugh after taking a sip.
Finally, after two hours of sipping and grazing, audience members selected their favorite Napa Valley tipple — Una Noche en Bangkok, a pastel-yellow, flower-tipped creation from St. Helena’s Goose & Gander blending vodka with tequila, lemongrass, coconut, ginger and jalapeno pepper. (The Editor’s Choice, awarded by Brian Kropf of Mutineer Magazine, was the Andaz hotel’s Persian Apple, which featured white peach, jasmine syrup, lemon, sherry and crème de Noyaux, an apricot-kernel liqueur.)
Yountville resident Kelli Marchbanks, however, considered picking a champion among cocktails almost beside the point after judging a county’s worth of drink masters in an afternoon. “It’s my dream come true!” she said, laughing.