Raising Spirits at the Iron Shaker Competition

NJ's top bartenders scared up seasonal and historical cocktails for the Third Annual Iron Shaker competition

Photo by John O'Boyle

Judges and attendees at the third annual Iron Shaker best-bartender competition confronted a vexing question: What’s more exciting, the liquid in the serving vessels or the vessels themselves?

In fact, appearance accounted for nearly one-third of each contestant’s score at the October 7 finals at Harrah’s in Atlantic City. With Halloween and New Jersey themes required for two of the four rounds, competitors scared up unique containers for their creations, including toy-sized cauldrons smoldering with dry ice, test tubes fed by plastic syringes, and lightbulbs—yes, actual lightbulbs—meant to evoke Jersey icon Thomas A. Edison.

The eight professional mixologists competing at Harrah’s emerged from earlier rounds in September at the Kolo Klub in Hoboken and Watermark in Asbury Park. At stake were a $1,000 grand prize and a hefty trophy. A panel of experts passed judgment on the cocktails, as did guests who purchased tickets for the event, which was produced by West Caldwell-based R&R Marketing and sponsored by New Jersey Monthly.

Along with appearance, the contestants were judged on creativity and taste. To impress the judges, concoctions garnished with blazing candles and whole candied marigolds had to taste as impressive as they looked. If contestants mixed in allusions to literature, history or philosophy, so much the better.

“Being a bartender at this level is borderline esoteric,” said winner Vincent Miezejewski of Ariane Kitchen & Bar in Verona. Miezejewski’s frightening Mexican wax-figurine garnishes pushed him to second place in the Halloween category. Half an hour later, his tie-in between the Garden State, a scene from The Sun Also Rises and Papa’s Pilar Rum (licensed by the family of Ernest Hemingway) clinched the New Jersey-themed round.

“It’s different from making a rum and Coke,” said the 33-year-old Miezejewski, who started mixing serious cocktails just a year ago. “You harness the intellectual and the creative to combine disparate pieces of your knowledge to match flavors.”

Unlike some of the competing bartenders, Miezejewski did not use centrifuges, hand-held smokers, kale dye, Cryovaced peaches, or knowledge of molecular energy to freeze perfectly clear ice diamonds. Instead, he combined fresh and unusual drink ingredients—like, toasted snap peas—with preparation and serendipity. Luck was a major factor in the mystery third round, when the mixologists were asked to create a drink with ingredients that were not revealed until the night of the event.

“I made tarragon syrup along with a bunch of others,”  Miezejewski said of his advance preparations. When the emcee announced the required ingredients—tarragon, pear and grapefruit—Miezejewski didn’t need to worry about literature, philosophy or history. He already had the tarragon syrup; all he had to do was make a tasty, attractive, skillful drink.

“The cards fell in my direction,” he smiled.

As Miezejewski’s self-described “simple and elegant” cocktails showed, this year’s winners represented the triumph of substance over style. Ingredients seemed to count for more with the judges than wizardry or science.

A farm-to-glass category asked contestants to use locally sourced ingredients, which in some cases did double-duty in the New Jersey round. Collin Kelly, of Gotham in Red Bank, procured the last local tomatoes of the season; Stephen Thomas from Crystal Springs Resort in Hamburg grew sage, mint, lavender and chamomile on his farm; Raymond Keane from Battello in Jersey City added a funky smell to a drink with the root vegetable kohlrabi; and Jonas Koep, of the Stone House at Stirling Ridge in Warren, served his Beetdown martini on a rustic wooden plank that began life as a barn door.

For his New Jersey-themed drink, second-place finisher Carlos Ruiz, from Agricola in Princeton, showcased pawpaw, a sweet, tropical-like fruit that grows on trees in the Northeast. “The biggest pawpaw tree in North America is in Cranbury,” said Ruiz. “It only grows for a few weeks in late September and early October, so I had to ask chefs at restaurants around Princeton to give me some.”

No one had to cajole or conjure spells to procure the most popular ingredient of the night: Earl Grey tea. At least three contestants infused it into syrups and spirits they had prepared in advance. The team from Verve Restaurant in Somerville, finding it too astringent when mixed with Ford’s Gin, reduced the bitterness with a process called milk washing. Improvising on a technique they had spotted in a book, Bryan Mack and assistant Kevin Lauter added whole milk and lemon to the tincture to allow the curds that formed to “suck out” the astringency, as they put it. “We’re beverage super-geeks, so we do a lot of reading,” said Mack.

“We try to blow people’s minds on a daily basis,” added his sidekick.

Speaking of blowing minds, Shawn Curran and Rob Silk, both of Harrah’s, provided the audience with a visual treat by caramelizing apples with a kitchen torch. But the biggest trick of the night came from third-place finisher Mack, who hid flasks of his Halloween drink under judges’ chairs. “We do a lot of fun stuff,” said Lauter.

The fun factor was evident in all of the Halloween entries, which were served in eye-popping vessels that overflowed with gummy worms, lychee eyeballs, blackened-mezcal vampire’s blood and colorfully dressed wax skeletons.

This year’s not-so-easily scared judges were Scott Cronick from the Press of Atlantic City; 2013 Iron Shaker winner Chris James; and 2014 winner John Jansma. Ingredients provided by R&R Marketing included Michter’s Small-Batch Whiskey, Ilegal Mezcal, Dutch’s Moonshine, Prairie Organic Vodka, St. Germain, Karma Tequila and New Jersey’s own Laird’s Applejack.

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