Chris James, bartender of the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, knows there is more to his craft than great ingredients and the perfect pour. Before the finals of the first Iron Shaker competition to crown the state’s top mixologist, he worked into the wee hours, honing his recipes—and his intangibles.
“Storytelling,” he explains, “is a big part of bartending, being that the profession is so rich in history.”
Three weeks earlier, James had been one of 16 top Jersey barkeeps—eight from the South, eight from the North—who squared off against each other before a panel of judges. After eliminations, four from each half of the state reached the finals, held at Park East in Hazlet. Their challenge would be to create four themed cocktails using sponsors’ liquors: Shaken or Stirred Martini; Limeless Margarita; Ultimate Fall/Winter Cocktail; and Go Buck Wilder, an anything-goes finale.
Growing up in Mahwah, James, like most kids of his generation, had loved Star Wars, not to mention that eternal talisman of childhood, peanut butter and jelly. Cocktail history may date to the 1860s, but it seems recent nostalgia can trump it.
“I love pop culture; it’s a big part of my life,” says James, referring to the vintage Return of the Jedi highball glasses he has held onto all these years. “And who doesn’t love PB&J?”
Served in those glasses, his freestyle creation, the Memory Lane—he calls it “a mash-up” of PB&J and Star Wars—sealed his victory in the inaugural competition. He went home to Holmdel with a $1,000 Amex gift card, a crystal magnum of Moet & Chandon Imperial and the Iron Shaker Trophy.
“I made sure there was an explanation for every ingredient,” he says. “Judges always like a story.”