It's standard procedure for judges at taste-offs, cook-offs and cocktails shake-offs to gracefully remark on the difficulty of reaching a decision. But this year's Best Martini in the East Bay contest, held Monday evening at the Lafayette Park Hotel, amped up the level of difficulty.

By the time the Walnut Creek Yacht Club took home the top prize for their St. Beetersburg Martini, mixologists from 14 East Bay restaurants and bars had shaken up hundreds of creative cocktails that combined sweet, savory and decidedly boozy elements, all in the name of adult literacy. The annual martini fest, which includes live jazz and hors d'oeuvres, is a benefit for the Contra Costa County Library's Project Second Chance.

Greg Palomo and the Walnut Creek Yacht Club delivered a rosy beet-pink cocktail -- hence the St. Beetersburg moniker -- that mixed Russian Standard Vodka, Calvados, fresh lemon and beet syrup. A horseradish kick balanced the sweetness and a house-made potato chip garnish added just the right touch of salt.

Second prize went to the Dragon Martini, a pink cocktail with a Japanese peppercorn kick, created by Walnut Creek's Sasa, a Japanese izakaya. And the People's Choice nod went to Moresi's Chophouse for its Southern Breeze Sangria. The sweet fusion of martini and sangria genres earned the Clayton restaurant its sixth People's Choice win in seven years.

Missed the festivities? Here's just a taste:

St. Beetersburg Martini

Serves 1

Caraway salt (see recipe)

2 ounces Russian Standard Vodka

1/2 ounce Calvados

3/4 ounce beet syrup (see recipe)

3/4 ounce lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon grated horseradish

Garnish:

1 lemon twist

1 house-made potato chip

1. Moisten half the rim of a chilled martini glass; coat with caraway salt.

2. Add the vodka, Calvados, beet syrup, lemon juice and horseradish to a shaker filled with ice. Shake well.

3. Strain cocktail into prepared glass. Garnish with lemon twist and float potato chip on top.

Caraway Salt

Lightly toast 1 tablespoon caraway seeds. Pulse a few times in a spice/coffee grinder. Add 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Pulse a few more times to desired consistency

Beet Syrup

In a small saucepan, bring 2 ounces fresh beet juice, 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water to a boil. Remove from heat and cool.

-- Greg Palomo, Walnut Creek Yacht Club