With 300 cocktail-fueled guests in a room the noise level can be deafening, but when Bob Harkins of Cold River Vodka took to the stage at Monday night’s sold-out Maine Bartenders Bash the crowd grew so quiet I swear I could hear the ice cubes melting.

“It was close, it was really close,” Harkins told the partygoers, who’d cast their votes for best bartender after sampling 15 drink creations. “Winning $500 this evening is Tom Laslavic.”

Cheers engulfed the silence as Laslavic made his way to the stage at the Portland Museum of Art, during this kickoff event for Maine Restaurant Week.

The bartender at Natalie’s Restaurant, located in the posh Camden Harbour Inn, Laslavic impressed the crowd with a cocktail called Camden Hike, which featured blueberry and blackberry purees, lemon juice, Creme de Cassis, honey, club soda and the night’s signature spirit, Cold River Vodka, which served as the base of all the concoctions. The drink was refreshing and light with a distinctive blueberry taste that wasn’t cloying or artificial.

Before the votes were tallied, I spoke with a number of people who heaped praise on the Camden Hike. Alana Peterkin, Devan Wojcik and Carla Gilbert were among those who said the drink was their favorite.

Pam Laskey, the director of Maine Foodie Tours, cast her vote for the Rathbone Sour mixed up by John Myers of The Corner Room, but said she was impressed by Laslavic’s cocktail, too.

“It was the only fruity drink that wasn’t overly sweet,” Laskey said.

As Harkins pointed out, Laslavic’s win was by no means a landslide and this was clear as I made the rounds among the drink tasters.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” said Sandra Christiansen. “There are a lot of good choices here.”

The Rathbone Sour, a mix of St. Germain, lemon juice and muddled basil leaves, was one favored by many in the crowd, including Rebecca Daigle, Merrie Redwanski and John Redwanski.

“It’s the right mix of salty, sweet and basil,” Laskey told me. “And it’s easy to make.”

“What I love about (Myers’) style is he stays true to the ingredients and tweaks it,” said Heather Jamieson. “I like his whole philosophy of mixing drinks.”

According to my colleague, Meredith Goad, who is the food writer for the Portland Press Herald, the evening’s most original drinks were the Rathbone Sour and the Blood Orange Beet Martini, created by Amie Kitchen at the Hilton Garden Inn in Freeport. But like everyone else, she found lots to love in a number of the cocktails.

“Hugo’s Green Thumb was very clean and light,” Goad said. “Local 188’s was good, too.”

Amy Landry was another fan of Local 188’s White Lotus, created by bartender Jessica Joseph.

“I don’t like sweet drinks,” Landry said. “I like the ones that go back to the traditional simplicity, like gimlets, sidecars and Manhattans.”

Landry added that the White Lotus, made with ginger liqueur and lemon juice, was a good example of the not-too-sweet simplicity she prefers.

Of course, opinions were as varied as the drinks, and while Landry didn’t like the sweet drinks, Wojcik, who preferred the Camden Hike, said “A lot were too citrusy.”

On the flip side were folks such as Rebecca Dyer, Kim Conley and Jessica McLellan who raved about the Ice Breaker created by Tracy Rousseau and Carol Marshall of Solo Bistro. The drink featured lemonade, pomegranate juice, lime juice, Prosecco and lavender,

“It’s very light,” McLellan said. “It’d be great for a summertime cocktail. A lot of the others are too syrupy.”

Mixed up by Scott Doherty of Vignola, The Native, featuring Allagash beer and spices, was one of the party’s more unusual cocktails. Some liked it, some didn’t.

“I thought it was a horrible thing to do to Allagash when I first saw it,” said Michael White. “But once I tasted it, I’d say it’s a contender.”

With so many drinks to sample, attendees devised all kinds of rating systems, such as the quirky notes Chris Heton employed or the number rankings Ally Felser used. When I caught up with Felser and Luke Livingston, they’d had a chance to taste half of the drinks on offer and said the Green Thumb and the Ice Breaker were their top choices.

“I’ll whittle it down to the top three of four,” Livingston said of his strategy for picking a winner. “And then try them again.”

Don Thibodeau, the president of Green Thumb Farms, which grows the potatoes for Cold River Vodka, was so engrossed in reviewing his notes as he worked to pick his favorite that it was a challenge to get him to look up and smile for a photo with his daughter, Betsy Thibodeau.

After I snapped the picture and Don returned to scrutinizing his notes, Betsy told me her favorites were the Camden Hike, the Green Thumb and The Nor’easter from Walter’s.

Whether or not the tasters preferred sweet, sour or spicy, the evening proved Maine is home to a sophisticated crew of mixologists who complement our state’s much lauded foodie scene.

As Raymond Brunyanszki, who owns the Camden Harbour Inn with Oscar Verest, said, “For so long the emphasis has been on the food part in Maine. But the bar is really developing fast in Maine. You don’t have to go to New York anymore to get decent cocktails.”

I’ll drink to that.

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

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