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Cocktail competition has restaurants in high spirits

Area mixologists will faceoff during the Set the Bar competition Oct. 15 at Ed Smith Stadium.

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  • | 11:50 a.m. October 7, 2021
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  • Eat + Drink
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Bartenders from 25 restaurants are pitting their creativity against one another in the hopes of winning the Set the Bar libation competition, sponsored by the Sarasota-Manatee Originals.

The event will help raise money for Embracing Our Differences, a nonprofit that hosts arts and education programs throughout the area. 

Now in its fourth year (last year’s event did not occur due to the pandemic), Set the Bar was created as a fun and interactive platform to showcase the talent of local mixologists, all of whom play an integral part in the service industry in Sarasota.

“Our bartenders play a huge role in creating an exciting and enjoyable atmosphere," Sarasota-Manatee Originals Executive Director Sarah Firstenberger says. "We feel our event on Oct. 15 will be a great opportunity for attendees to sample each creation.”

“Our bartenders play a huge role in creating an exciting and enjoyable atmosphere. We feel our event will be a great opportunity for attendees to sample each creation.” ~Sarah Firstenberger, Executive Director, Sarasota-Manatee Originals

Creating a new, unique cocktail is no ordinary feat. Ask competition participant Anthony Rizzo, the bartender at Duval’s Restaurant. A former Sarasota firefighter, Rizzo has been Duval’s bartender for six years and was the winner of the 2017 Set the Bar competition in the whiskey category. Rizzo said it requires “a lot of thought, time, measurements and ingredients to design a signature whiskey drink."

“It’s also an adrenal rush when you finally create something that people say ‘wow' when they take their first sip,” he says.

Rizzo’s 2017 creation was an award-winning, Thai tea-infused bourbon with date syrup, vanilla cold foam, a tincture of pond (leaves from Western medicine with bright aroma and flavor, similar to vanilla and coconut) and Everclear (190-proof high-octane neutral grain spirit that is more than twice the strength of standard vodka, “the bartender’s equivalent of jet fuel,” Rizzo says). Finally, a squeeze (or two) of Kaffir limes, which are mostly used in Southeast Asia and southern China cuisine for its intense citrus flavor. “Spice, flavor, bitterness, sweetness and how they all mix well together is the formula for a winning drink," Rizzo says.

Harry’s Continental Kitchens General Manager Hal Christensen says he is delighted to be part of this event for the first time. Harry’s is a small, seasonal restaurant in Longboat Key that launched in 1978. Its patrons love the many signature cocktails that the restaurant offers, and Christensen is sending bartender Denise Knobb, a 20-year veteran of Harry’s, to represent the restaurant.

“We like rum, so we’re going with that, and we’ve been bouncing ideas around based on researching new trends and specialty drinks,” Christensen says. “Just being out and being in the public again after COVID is a refreshing breath of fresh air for not only the Originals but for ourselves."

During the Set the Bar Cocktail competition, the best drinks in each category will be decided by an expert panel as well as attendees who will be tasked with sampling and savoring each creation before judging begins for: flavor, appearance, bartender presentation and imagination. The contenders will present innovative concoctions in five spirit categories: gin, vodka, tequila, rum and bourbon. 

Winners in each category will be given a variety of perks, but Firstenberger says that perhaps the most prestigious perk is bragging rights. The restaurant awarded Best Overall Cocktail will also have the opportunity to demo its signature cocktail on ABC7 Sarasota’s Suncoast View.

In addition to getting to sample drinks from beverage innovators in Sarasota and Manatee counties, guests at the Set the Bar Cocktail Competition will enjoy raffles and dishes presented by fellow Sarasota-Manatee Originals’ member restaurants. Tickets are $60 per person plus a ticketing fee and are on sale at Space is limited. Guests must be 21 years of age or older to attend this event, which is at Ed Smith Stadium, and masks are requested where social distancing is not possible. All vendors and volunteers will be masked during the entire evening. 

Set the Bar Competition on Friday, Oct. 15 will be the finale of the weeklong Set The Bar Cocktail Week that begins Oct. 8 and features drink specials, cocktail events and food and beverage pairings available at Sarasota-Manatee Originals’ member restaurants.

This year's competing restaurants include: 

Gin Category 

  • El Melvin Cocina Mexicana
  • JPAN Sushi & Grill
  • meLange
  • Michael’s On East
  • Ophelia’s On The Bay

Tequila Category 

  • Blue Marlin Seafood
  • Element
  • Grove
  • Sage
  • State Street Eating House + Cocktails

Vodka Category 

  • 1592 Wood Fired Kitchen & Cocktails
  • Mattison’s
  • Miguel’s Restaurant
  • Pier 22 Restaurant 
  • Sandbar Seafood & Spirits 

Whiskey Category 

  • Café Gabbiano 
  • Clasico Italian Chophouse
  • Duval’s Fresh.Local.Seafood
  • MADE Restaurant 
  • Tsunami Sushi & Hibachi Grill

Rum Category 

  • The Bijou Garden Café 
  • Fins at Sharky’s
  • Harry’s Continental Kitchens
  • Jack Dusty
  • Pop’s Sunset Grill

Restaurants providing local bites include:

  • Reyna's Taqueria
  • Mean Dean's Local Kitchen
  • Brick's Smoked Meats
  • Drunken Poet Café


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