Full Tilt Cocktail Competition at Graton casino out to see who’s the best mixologist in Sonoma County

Winner of the Full Tilt Cocktail Competition at the Graton casino won $2,500 in cash. The winning recipe will appear on the casino’s bar menu for a year.|

Fern Bar, the wildly innovative cocktail bar and restaurant in Sebastopol, clinched the top two prizes at last week’s Full Tilt Cocktail Competition at Graton Resort and Casino — first place from the judges and the People’s Choice Award.

Benefiting the American Society for Suicide Prevention, the lively event welcomed nearly 350 attendees who gathered to cheer and (playfully jeer) competing bartenders from 10 of Sonoma County’s top bars and restaurants, including Bird & the Bottle, 19Ten, Blue Ridge Kitchen, Fern Bar, Jackson’s Bar and Oven, Lo & Behold, Molti Amici, The Matheson, Stark’s Steakhouse and the mixology team at Graton Resort.

Their challenge was to create the best original cocktails using Charbay vodka and Ford’s gin — one recipe developed ahead of the competition for the People’s Choice Award, the other two improvised in front of a live audience and voted on by a panel of judges.

As the first-place winner, Thomas Cracraft, lead bartender at Fern Bar, was awarded $2,500 in cash, with his winning recipe scheduled to appear on Graton Resort and Casino’s bar menu for one year. As the People’s Choice winner, Fern Bar also received $500.

Second place for the People’s Choice award went to “John John” Chevalier from The Matheson, while Tofer Goodman, a bartender at Bird & the Bottle, received second place from the judges.

For the People’s Choice award, contestants were sent random samples of either vodka or gin two weeks before the competition. That gave them time to sample the product, develop their recipes and infuse the spirit with other ingredients, like fruit or herbs.

Dylan Morris, a bartender and server at Stark’s Steakhouse in Santa Rosa, had been mentally preparing to receive vodka as his “surprise” spirit. So he was pleasantly surprised when he was assigned gin instead.

“I’m much more comfortable working with gin because it has different flavors you can build off of,” Morris said. “Vodka doesn’t have as much going on, so it can be a challenge. I tried to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”

For the People’s Choice Award, Morris created the Peachy Keen, a French lavender and fennel-infused gin cocktail, with Dry Creek peach syrup, citrus bergamot juice and a candied peach garnish.

“I always like featuring local ingredients, so I was excited that Dry Creek peaches are in season right now,” he said.

Among the other competitors was Danielle Peters, a cocktail consultant and bar director at the new Molti Amici restaurant in Healdsburg. For her People’s Choice cocktail, Peters created the Lawless cocktail, a multilayered combination of fig leaf-infused Charbay vodka, Luxardo Bitter Bianco liqueur, Dimmi Liquore from Milan, fresh pressed cantaloupe, coconut cream and lemon, with an exotic whisp of palo santo stick.

“Fig leaf is a really interesting ingredient that blew my mind the first time I tried it, so I was excited to include it in my cocktail,” Peters said. “There are some really amazing looking cocktails out there made by some incredibly talented human beings. I can’t wait to see what they created.”

Ultimately, Fern Bar’s The Gallagher cocktail beat out its competitors to win the People’s Choice Award. Created by bar manager Matt Katzin, the cocktail featured a summery infusion of watermelon and lime juice, Charbay vodka, mint syrup and Chareau Aloe Liqueur.

The main event, however, was the live competition, an Iron Chef-inspired throwdown that challenged each bartender to create an original cocktail in less than 10 minutes with a box of mystery ingredients.

Perched high on the stage beneath the heat of glaring stage lights, competitor Marilyn Rodriguez, a bartender from Lo & Behold, appeared to keep her calm as she whipped up her gin and vodka cocktails.

“When I saw what was in my mystery box, I had a pretty good idea what I was going to make,” Rodriguez said. “But then my foam didn’t work and it completely threw me off. I still had the same game plan, but everything became sticky and slippery, which made the job so much harder! But honestly, it’s just like another day at work. If something goes wrong behind the bar, you just need to be able to adjust and adapt.”

Among the live competition’s judges were mixologist extraordinaire and Barndiva beverage director Scott Beattie; Soda Works’ owner Jason Steele; and Chelsea Pearl, a Sonoma County-based wine and social media influencer.

Beattie, who was looking forward to experiencing the creativity of all the participants before the competition, said he was “really excited to see everyone bringing their A game.

“My mind is continuously blown away by the level at which people are creating cocktails right now,” Beattie said. “They’re using seasonal produce, creating riffs on traditional recipes and really trying to create elevated cocktails. These 10 competitors represent the best of Sonoma County.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or sarah.doyle@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @whiskymuse.

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