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While weather outside may have been frightful, Charlestonians love a good cocktail, and yesterday’s freezing rain and frigid temperatures were hardly enough to deter locals from making their way to Social Restaurant and Bar for the official Charleston Wine + Food Mixologist Competition. Five local bartenders competed in this year’s annual competition, which was open to the general public for the first time. Mixologists battled for a cash prize and the opportunity to have their drink featured as the signature cocktail at the 2011 Festival Opening Night Party: A Salute to Charleston’s Chefs.

Bartenders arrived well before the event to present their cocktails one by one to the official panel of judges, which included Van Gogh Imports’ Julian Barowsky, Festival Board Member Patrick Emerson, 2010 Competition winner Jason Hall, Festival Beverage Chair Matthew McKeown, Charleston Wine + Food Festival Executive Director Angel Postell, Charleston magazine editor-in-chief Darcy Shankland, and Art Institute of Charleston’s Brian Stanley.

The nervous energy was palpable as each contestant awaited their turn before the panel, but all anxiety quickly dissolved as an enthusiastic crowd began pouring through the doors at Social. The gloomy weather effected neither the turnout nor the atmosphere of the event, and guests happily jockeyed for position at the various tasting tables.

Evan Powell of Fish Restaurant served the Blue Ray, a refreshing, crisp drink highlighting notes of cucumber and citrus, while neighboring bartender Jasmine Beck of Oku capitalized on the sweet, exotic flavor of the lychee in her colorful creation, Lychee Blossom. Ice Box mixologist Boris Van Dyke opted for a delicious new take on a modern favorite with his Ginger-Apple Mojito, and Samantha Ewing of FIG offered guests lovely, potent beverage called the Blossoming Pear Tree, while Cypress’ Mayan Milak showcased a delightful, stylish cocktail named The Reaper.

Several women were overheard raving about Jasmine Beck’s Lychee Blossom, while their male counterparts argued strongly for Evan Powell’s Blue Ray or Samantha Ewing’s potent Blossoming Pear Tree. “You’ve really got to try that one, but it’s gonna knock your socks off!” one guest warned. Many guests went back for seconds, and Boris Van Dyke’s Ginger-Apple Mojito garnered more than a few repeat offenders. The Ginger-Apple Mojito ultimately won both the title of Charleston Wine + Food Festival Signature Cocktail and crowd favorite.

Libations flowed freely throughout the evening, and Social helped keep the party from getting too spirited by serving an array of tantalizing bites. While the sashimi topped cucumbers and basil wrapped shrimp tempura were absolutely mouth-watering, party goers descended on the short rib sliders topped with crispy shallots with ravenous enthusiasm. Despite the bad weather, this year’s competition was a fabulous success that is sure to be eagerly anticipated for 2012.