There was as much camaraderie as competitiveness on display at this year’s Iron Shaker, the annual statewide cocktail competition that crowns New Jersey’s best bartender.
Finalists from eight different bars around the state gathered at the House of Independents in Asbury Park on October 8 to compete in the sixth annual Iron Shaker contest. The top bartenders crafted drinks in four themed rounds: dive bar, speakeasy, tiki, and a cocktail that represented their restaurant or bar concept.
Event master of ceremonies Steve Fette, the 2016 Iron Shaker winner and now development specialist for Allied Beverage Group, kicked off the evening with an announcement: “We’re drinking cocktails tonight, but we’re drinking for a cause.” For the first time this year, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey and Fulfill hosted Iron Shaker as a charity event, and all proceeds from ticket sales were donated to help feed hungry families.
Two former competitors returned this year to clash for another chance at the grand prize: Carlos Ruiz of Somos in North Arlington, who took second place in the 2016 and 2015 competitions; and Bobby Frascella of Summit House in Summit, who placed second in last year’s Iron Shaker. “I’m back to win it,” said Frascella as he assembled a cocktail in a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer can during the first round.
Other competitors shared a similar spirited rivalry. Colin Dietz and Brittan Binder of Tapastre in Somerville were up against Max Stephenson, bartender from Project P.U.B., their sister restaurant. “It’s like trying to beat your little brother,” said Dietz.
Ruiz and Frascella took an early lead, tied in first place after the first round, in which they both presented their dive bar-themed cocktails to the judges in beer cans. They remained neck and neck throughout the competition, but in the end, Ruiz prevailed and was crowned the 2018 Iron Shaker winner. Frascella placed second, and Caine Czerula from Montclair Social Club took third.
“It feels fantastic,” said Ruiz, trophy in hand. “It only took three years.” He was hopeful that his Iron Shaker win would help generate momentum for Somos, which had yet to open at the time of the competition.
The concoction Ruiz credits for his win? The Bad Bunny, a creamy and refreshing frozen tiki cocktail featuring Mezan Rum, Avuá Amburana Cachaça, horchata, carrot-orange juice, lime juice and simple syrup. “It was definitely our most popular of the night,” said Ruiz. “It flew off our table.”
Other competitors—including Igor Silva of Clarks Landing in Point Pleasant; Matt Brown, Rebecca Jorgensen and Andrew Hurst of the Crosby in Montclair; and Rachel Shields of Stage Left Steak in New Brunswick—were just as excited to have a table at the Iron Shaker finals. “I’ve just been winging it and am happy to have made it through,” said Stage Left’s Shields.
When asked if he planned to compete again next year, runner-up Frascella answered unhesitatingly: “Without a doubt.”
The competition’s judges were Vince Comunale, wine and beverage manager for Harvest Restaurant Group; Vanessa Hernandez of Best Foods NJ; Beth Ritter Nydick, co-author of Clean Cocktails; Tim Paul of Silk City Distillers; and New Jersey Monthly managing editor Deborah Carter. The judges scored the drinks based on difficulty, presentation and taste. Attendees got to sample tastes of each drink, too, and voted for their favorite cocktail in each round.
Brand sponsors of this year’s competition were St. George Spirits, Bedlam Vodka, Mezan Rum, Avuá Cachaça, Prairie Gin, Tres Agaves Tequila, Gracias a Dios Mezcal, Laird’s Applejack, Koval Distillery, Bluebird Distilling, Sagamore Spirit, Wild Sardinia Vermouth, Amaro Montenegro and Dashfire Bitters. Other sponsors included the USBG of New Jersey and the Somerville-based Cheech’s Own Cold Brew. The event was presented by Allied Beverage Group. New Jersey Monthly was the exclusive media sponsor.Click here to leave a comment