PORTLAND — Kathleen Desilva popped a bit of lemon-colored cotton candy into her mouth, then took a sip of her cocktail, a refreshing mix of vodka, lemoncello and prosecco with the whimsical name “Put Up Your Cukes.”

Her eyes grew large, then her mouth opened in a big O. Her two friends laughed at her expression.

Desilva, who lives in Windham, pronounced the unusual cocktail “awesome.”

Desilva and her friends, Jen LaChance Sibley of Windham and Stacey Bashaw of Auburn, were making the rounds Wednesday night at The Signature Event, the cocktail-and-dessert competition that launches Maine Restaurant Week.

This was their first time at the sold-out gathering, and they were just getting started sampling the creative drinks and luscious confections made by 22 of Maine’s best bartenders and pastry chefs.

About 600 people packed the Portland Harbor Hotel on Fore Street, wandering from table to table, leaning in to hear descriptions of what they were about to try.

Sitting at the bar in Eve’s, the restaurant at the hotel, were cocktail judges John Myers of The Grill Room, one of the best-known bartenders in Portland; John Gertsen of Drink in Boston, considered one of the top bartenders in New England; and Shannon Bryan, a writer for Maine Today Media, representing cocktail fans everywhere.

The three judges watched a blood-red martini bubble with dry ice. Half-empty glasses were lined up in front of them.

Asked what he was looking for in a winner, Myers said, “It’s that X factor.”

“I want something that’s going to stand out, something that I don’t know exactly what they made it of, something that I wish I had come up with, you know,” Myers said. “And something that I want two or three of.”

Gertsen said he was looking for “intrigue” and “a drink that’s compelling.”

“I want a drink I’m going to get deeper into,” he said, “and maybe it’s because I can’t figure out what it is or why it tastes so good.”

It definitely wasn’t quiet at the Academe table, where Adrian Trudeau, Brian O’Hea and Tracy Porell were having fun acting like carnival barkers, luring people to try “Put Up Your Cukes,” their unusual cocktail that was paired with homemade salted lemon cotton candy. They, like all the other bartenders, were vying for the silver, black and red Mardi Gras necklaces that the crowd was handing out to vote for their favorite cocktails and desserts.

Trudeau, the bartender at Academe, said the house-infused basil and cucumber vodka drink was based on something already on the Kennebunk restaurant’s menu, but he had added a creative twist.

He said, “We added a little Caravello to it, a little splash of sour mix, shake it all up, and then we’re going to add a little prosecco to it at the end. The best part about it, I think, is when you get this salted lemon cotton candy in your mouth, and then you have the drink with it, it kind of develops all the flavors.”

Cheri Murdock of Scarborough and her friend Susan Mason of Biddeford were thinking of casting their votes for the Fresh Basil Gimlet created by Zues-Hannah Suzette from Freeport’s Azure Cafe. “It wasn’t too sweet, very refreshing,” Murdock said.

People were equally as effusive over the desserts. There were lots of raves over Standard Baking Co.’s Gateau Noisette, a chocolate and hazelnut cake that is a version of the Portland bakery’s Christmas cake.

“I think we’re going to have to put it in the menu, because people keep asking,” said Tara Smith, who made the cake.

In the end, the Gateau Noisette won the People’s Choice award for desserts. The People’s Choice cocktail award went to Azure Cafe’s Fresh Basil Gimlet. Azure Cafe also won the display award.

The judges unanimously chose Conundrum #1, the cocktail created by Tom Laslavic of Natalie’s at the Camden Harbour Inn, as the big winner of the cocktail competition. The cocktail contained 10 Cane Rum, Grand Marnier, Cardamaro, soda and housemade bitters. It was garnished with Wisconsin bing cherries soaked in vodka and French cherries soaked in brandy.

Laslavic, who also won in 2010, said he was “definitely thrilled” to be named cocktail champion.

“This is such a great event,” he said. “The contest always inspires me. I like the professional component to it.”

Then he made Myers and Gertsen another drink.

“Cheers,” Myers said, raising his glass. “Well done, well done.”

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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