Bartenders Come Out Smokin’ at Iron Shaker Competition

Creativity was on tap as Garden State mixologists crafted storied cocktails at the fifth annual Iron Shaker competition.

The Spoilers of War, created by Ian Alexander from Due Mari in New Brunswick.
The Spoilers of War, created by Ian Alexander from Due Mari in New Brunswick.
Photo by Jim Connolly

Literature and storytelling were at the forefront of the fifth annual Iron Shaker, the statewide cocktail competition that recognizes New Jersey’s best bartender. Finalists from 10 different bars around the state gathered on October 9 at the Asbury Hotel in Asbury Park to concoct four rounds of drinks with different literary themes in mind: fairy tales, romance, superheroes and Dr. Seuss.

First-place winner Ian Alexander from Due Mari in New Brunswick competed in last year’s finals and was back again to fight for another chance at the grand prize. “This was my shot at redemption,” said Alexander. “I learned from my mistakes last year. Presentation is a big deal.”

The drink Alexander credits for his win? A Hulk-inspired mixture of Tres Agaves tequila blanco, Bluecoat American dry gin, Noilly Prat dry vermouth, honeydew-melon juice, fennel-seed-infused simple syrup, lime juice and smoked-paprika simple syrup—which he presented during the superheroes-themed third round alongside prosciutto and melon. “Who doesn’t love that flavor combination?” he said.

The Iron Shaker 2016 winner, Steve Fette, now a development specialist for Allied Beverage Group, had a new role in this year’s competition as the event announcer.

READ MORE: Cocktail Recipes from the Pros

The competitors were judged on the taste, appearance and originality of their cocktails. But each bartender seemed to grasp the extra significance the judges put on presentation for their final scores. During the superheroes round, Bernard O’Connell and Calvin Hwang from the Dillinger Room in New Brunswick brought their bourbon- and rum-based Knightfall cocktail to the judges in a wooden box. When the lid was lifted, three cocktails decorated with Batman logos were revealed.

The crowd looked on intrigued as Graham Christie and Jason Gleason from Montclair’s Pig & Prince delivered their bright and herbal cocktail, named Swamp Thing, to the judges’ table on a wooden board, enhanced with fog effects created by dry ice.

Past competitor Bobby Frascella, bar manager of Summit House in Summit, impressed judges during the first round by serving cocktails out of a porron—a traditional Spanish glass wine pitcher with a long spout. The fairy tale-themed cocktail, called the Whole New World, was a mixture of Bluecoat American dry gin, Bluecoat Barrel-Aged Gin, St. George raspberry liqueur, apple juice, lemon juice and jasmine syrup. The drink helped Frascella take an early lead after the first round.He ended up taking second place.

Other trends on display at this year’s showdown included smoky and savory cocktails—a move away from the sweet drinks people have come to expect. Bartenders favored fresh grapefruit and lime juice over orange or lemon, resulting in cocktails that were bright with acid, without cloying sweetness. For the final round, Alexander served the judges his Dr. Seuss-inspired cocktail, Ten Apples on Top, to the judges with torched wood chips on the side, adding another element of smokiness to the drink’s presentation.

Mezcal was a popular spirit of choice, appearing in smoky cocktails like the Man of La Mancha, made by the Dillinger Room’s O’Connell and Hwang, which paired mezcal’s smoky, vegetal flavors with tequila, fino sherry, tamarind syrup, fresh lime juice and a splash of tonic water. Nick Regimbal from Verve in Somerville created a drink called the Colombian, highlighting mezcal’s smoky aromas with a rich, complex Colombian rum, amaretto and almond bitters.

This year’s competition also brought out several first-time participants, including Jason Turon and Kristina Neuwirth from the Stirling Tavern in Morristown. “This is year one for us,” said Turon. “So we’re very honored and stoked to have made it to the finals.” They ended up taking third place.

Their superhero-inspired cocktail, called Under the Red Hood, was on the savory side—a creative and balanced mixture of Tres Agaves reposado tequila, Xicaru mezcal, carrot juice, honey-maple syrup, beet juice, lemon juice and cardamom bitters.

Patrick Amice, who got back behind the bar earlier this year as the beverage director for the Peacock Inn in Princeton, let his Jersey pride shine through during the superheroes round. In his Why Soo Serious cocktail, inspired by Batman’s archenemy, the Joker, Amice paired Jersey fresh concord grape juice with Le Hechicera Colombian rum, an American aperitvo called Bruto Americano, lime juice, cherry bitters and fresh lavender.

Judging this year’s competition were John Oliver of Breakthru Beverage Group; Iron Shaker 2013 winner Chris James; and Iron Shaker 2015 winner Vince Miezejewski. Guests were also allowed to vote for their favorite cocktail in each round, and the audience vote was included in the competitors’ scores for each of the four rounds.

Brand sponsors of this year’s competition were St. George Spirits, Bluecoat, Clyde May’s, Tres Agaves, Xicaru, La Hechicera, Avua Cachaca, Prairie Organic Spirits and Michter’s. The event was presented by Allied Beverage Group; New Jersey Monthly was the exclusive media sponsor.

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