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Set the Bar cocktail contest returns this weekend to Ed Smith Stadium

An old fashioned from Euphemia Haye, which will be serving a whiskey cocktail at Set the Bar.
An old fashioned from Euphemia Haye, which will be serving a whiskey cocktail at Set the Bar.
Photo by Lori Sax
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Do bartenders really entertain their customers by throwing bottles behind their back to a partner and other juggling antics? In the classic 1988 film “Cocktail,” Tom Cruise made it look that way.

Sometimes art imitates life. And in a circus town like Sarasota, it’s safe to say there are a few bartenders out there who treat bottles of Jack Daniel’s as if they are juggling pins.

Where do you find them? No doubt there is bound to be a juggling bartender or two among the 25 mixologists represented at the Set the Bar cocktail competition on April 14 at Ed Smith Stadium.

If you can’t remember attending last season’s Set the Bar event, don’t worry, you’re not losing your memory. There wasn’t one because of scheduling issues.

Set the Bar is brought to you by Sarasota-Manatee Originals, the same group of local restaurateurs who bring you the Forks & Corks Food and Wine Festival each year. That upscale event, which culminates in the Grand Testing in the courtyard of The Ringling Museum, sells out in minutes each year.

That’s why it’s good news that one of the items that will be raffled off at this year’s Set the Bar is a pair of tickets to the 2025 Forks & Corks event. 

There will also be entertainment and light bites from the participating restaurants as a panel of judges and event attendees decide on the best cocktail in five categories: gin, tequila, vodka, whiskey and rum. 

A bartender shows off his moves at the Set the Bar cocktail competition in 2022 at Ed Smith Stadium.
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine

Besides excellent libations and tasty bites, Set the Bar gives attendees the opportunity to engage in a favorite Florida pastime — people watching and admiring decorations.

At the last Set the Bar, the restaurant Tsunami constructed a giant ice sculpture. Some restaurants go all out in decorating their booth for the competition as if they were building a float for the Rose Parade. 

You might think that the last thing bartenders would want to do on their day off is go make drinks for a charitable cause (Children First is this year’s Set the Bar charitable partner.), but you would be wrong. To become a top bartender in a tourist town, you’ve got to love people.

There’s no arguing that Sarasota native Julie Asher is a people person. But she also likes to compete. This year will be her first time in competition at Set the Bar. Asher, who works at Stottlemyer’s Smokehouse, attended the 2022 contest at the invitation of her boss, Doug Chaffin, and his wife.

“I had so much fun as a spectator I decided to become a competitor,” says Asher, who has been a professional bartender for 17 years. 

Asher says of Set the Bar, “As a spectator, it’s very energetic, upbeat, fun. It’s almost like a big cocktail party with a lot of people you don’t necessarily know. It’s very educational to learn about cocktails.”

Under Set the Bar’s rules, the bartenders representing the competing restaurants must keep their concoctions secret until the day of the cocktail confab. Asher was able to reveal that she will be competing in the gin category with a cocktail that pays homage to Old Florida.

Asher might be on to something with her Old Florida theme, since that was a winning proposition for Heidi Finley in 2022. Finley, the lead bartender at Jack Dusty in the Ritz-Carlton, won in the rum category with her drink “Papa’s Paradise.” 

Asked if it were an ode to Ernest Hemingway, whose nickname was “Papa,” or to her own father, Finley replied, “Both. My dad loved Hemingway. I am from Key West.”

This year, Finley is back at Set the Bar, competing in the tequila category instead of rum. But mum’s the word on the ingredients in her concoction.

A woman votes for her favorite cocktails at the Set the Bar cocktail competition in 2022.
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine

Speaking of Hemingway, Finley likens creating a cocktail to telling a story, one that begins with glassware. 

Will making cocktails on the fly in a baseball stadium be a difficult transition from her normally sumptuous quarters at Jack Dusty? Not at all, says Finley. 

“I was a softball player for many years, so I love Ed Smith,” she says. “I also love the camaraderie that exists, even among competitors. It’s a huge group of mixologists who are supporting one another.”

Here’s how much Finley likes working at Jack Dusty, which routinely wins contests for the most romantic place in town to have a drink: She commutes to her job from Orlando. 

She took the position at Jack Dusty three years ago, after her previous restaurant was closed down for more than a year due to COVID. Finley and her family are looking to relocate to Sarasota but are waiting until the real estate market calms down, she says.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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