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Artisan bartenders compete during Cocktail Week

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It takes more than just top-shelf liquor to make a fine cocktail.

It takes creativity with quality ingredients, inventive bartenders to mix them and establishments that like to be on the cutting edge.

Starting Monday, the second annual Midtown Cocktail Week Sacramento begins a celebration of really good cocktails and the culture behind them: the people, the places, the spirits and the innovation of the city’s growing artisan cocktail movement.

"The cocktail movement — it’s just a movement toward quality," said 31-year-old bartender Erick Castro, considered by some to be the "godfather" of Sacramento’s cocktail scene. "It’s like the rebirth of a craft. And when you get down to it, it just tastes better."

Castro and Zocalo’s General Manager Joe Anthony Savala came up with the idea for a Sacramento "Cocktail Week" after taking trips together into San Francisco and seeing how popular cocktails have become there again. Castro was a bartender at Zocalo at the time.

The art and craft of making those cocktails is known as mixology. At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Lounge on 20 is hosting a mixology competition to test the skill and artistry of at least six people working at bars in Midtown and downtown. Each "mixologist" will create a cocktail using Beefeater 24, a tea-infused gin introduced last fall.

Competitors include Ricky Paiva of Zocalo, Russell Eastman of Lounge on 20 and Dan Mitchell of Mulvaney’s at the B & L.

Ricky Paiva, Zocalo

Ricky Paiva goes to farmers’ markets as often as he can. As Zocalo’s new lead bartender, he picks up fresh, local produce to make such concoctions as peach-infused tequila and grapefruit/hibiscus salt for the artisan cocktails he creates. He recently returned to Sacramento after six years in Portland. There, he managed a full-on "scratch bar" where he made everything but the liquor from scratch.

The 27-year-old, who’s worked at Zocalo only two months, is known for taking what’s available and putting together something new. He just invented a cool, creamy, spiced-chocolate cocktail using a limited-release Mole Poblano vodka after Savala got his hands on a few bottles. The mixed drink is so new, Paiva hasn’t even named it. He spends "happy hours" mixing, shaking and pouring behind the restaurant’s romantic, curvy marble bar. His passion for cocktails made him a natural hire at a restaurant that already pays someone to squeeze fresh lime juice for margaritas and mojitos eight hours a day.

"I try to do everything as seasonally as possible," he said.

Russell Eastman, Lounge on 20

Over at Lounge on 20, "cocktologist" Russell Eastman likes to create balanced cocktails — not too sweet, not too tart — that accentuate the liquor. His drinks focus on fruit and may contain obscure ingredients like Campari Italian bitters or yellow Chartreuse liqueur.

Castro recruited Eastman to become lead bartender when the bar opened last year. Eastman said he took the job because the bar is one of the few in town that let bartenders experiment. Clients who know him will sit down at the sleek white bar and let him make whatever he wants. The 28-year-old is guiding the bartending staff in mixology and cocktail recipe creation.

"We do killer cocktails," he said.

Dan Mitchell, Mulvaney’s at the B & L

Customers bring home-grown fruit into Mulvaney’s so bartender Dan Mitchell can make flavored vodkas, gins and rums. He grew up in the restaurant business and has been making all of his own flavored spirits for about six years. 

Bottles of Meyer’s lemon and mandarin orange vodkas sat behind the cozy dark-wood bar, while a batch of peach gin was still two days away from being done. He also makes his own bitters from locally distilled moonshine. The 40-year-old puts as much personality as creativity into his bartending. Loyal clients follow him wherever he goes to create drinks like pomegranate martinis. But don’t call him a mixologist. "I’m a bartender!" he said.

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Other competitors work behind the plank at establishments including L Wine Lounge, Mix and Ella, Savala said.

The artisan cocktail trend emphasizes the use of fresh ingredients made from scratch rather than pre-made, packaged juices, flavored liquors, syrups and the like, which have added chemicals.

The growing trend to eat more healthy food without harmful additives seems to have spun off into a similar trend with cocktails, Castro said.

These bartenders are often more knowledgeable about what it takes to make high-quality drinks than the average person tending bar. They also spend extra time making things like fresh juices, infused spirits and other ingredients that go into these craft cocktails, said Sonny Mayugba, a foodie and cocktail connoisseur who sits on the event’s planning committee.

"This is about discovering you can go out to a guy like Russell and have a wonderful, most amazing cocktail that rivals a great meal — not by filling you up, but like a tasty piece of food that a chef created," he said.

Mayugba, who also directs business development for The Sacramento Press, got involved with cocktail week last year as the founder of biteclub.com, a niche network for Sacramento’s service industry. Through his involvement, Sacramento Press is handling social media networking for the event.

The latest wave in the popularity of cocktails first took off in San Francisco, New York and London several years ago. Sacramento bartenders brought it here shortly after, but the movement has really only caught on in the last year or two, said Garrett Hintze, general manager for Lounge on 20.

"It’s at the grass roots level right now," he said.

Sacramentans will have an opportunity to see talented mixologists at work and taste their creations throughout Midtown Cocktail Week, which includes the "Opening Party" at 6 p.m. Monday at L Wine Lounge, 1801 L St.; "Pig Roast & Harvest Drinks" at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Mulvaney’s, 1215 19th St.; "Latin Spirits Night" at 6 p.m. Thursday at Zocalo, 1801 Capitol Ave.; a cocktails and food pairing featuring fresh pear martinis, fresh kiwi drops and orange-pomegranate martinis made with Grey Goose vodka at 6 p.m. Saturday at Ink Eats & Drinks, 2730 N St.; and the "Closing Party" at 8 p.m. Sunday at Mix, 16th and L streets.

At 9 p.m. Friday, Castro will be guest bartending a "Crafted Punch Party" at Paragary’s Bar & Oven patio, 1401 28th St.

While the events are free, sampling drinks is not. Mulvaney’s roast costs $50 per person and includes all food and drinks.

If you want to learn how to make tasty cocktails yourself, Dragonfly at 1809 Capitol Ave. is hosting a "Cocktail Creation Class" at 4 p.m. Saturday. Space is limited. The class will be taught by San Francisco’s celebrity bartender Jon Santer, who created a drink called The Revolver for the city’s first reservations-only speakeasy, Bourbon & Branch. Register at www.midtowncocktailweek.org.

Castro will help teach the class as well. He left for San Francisco’s cocktail scene a year ago, after working as a consultant beverage director to open Lounge on 20. Castro created the bar program, then hired and trained the bartenders. He now works as beverage director for the Financial District’s Rick House and teaches a "Cocktail 101" class at Bourbon & Branch, where you can still get one of his carefully crafted drinks on nights he tends bar.

Sacramento’s location near trendsetting San Francisco and access to California’s fresh-picked produce year-round helped the cocktail movement become well-established here long before other areas, he said.

"In all this, Sacramento is doing well on a national scale. People in Sacramento were making quality cocktails sooner than a lot of bigger cities across the country," Castro said. "It’s just phenomenal what’s happening right now. And it’s taking off across the whole country."

For more information, check out www.midtowncocktailweek.org.

Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. She can be reached at 916-804-2856 or suzanne@sacramentopress.com.

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