Top Bartenders Shake it Up at Iron Shaker

Mixologist from Verve in Somerville wins statewide competition.

Photo by Jim Connolly

Ingredients trumped gimmickry at this year’s Iron Shaker, the statewide cocktail competition that crowns New Jersey’s best bartender. In years past, visual tricks and blowtorches were in abundance; this year, mixology skills ruled.

In the end, Steve Fette, bartender at Verve in Somerville, was toasted as the Iron Shaker winner.  This year’s competition consisted of three preliminary rounds at the Dillinger Room in New Brunswick; the Brass Rail in Hoboken; and Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen in Morristown. The final round of the competition—created and produced by Breakthru Beverage Group—was held October 5 at Harrah’s in Atlantic City.

In the four years since the Iron Shaker competition began, things have changed drastically on the New Jersey cocktail scene. Where cocktail culture used to cluster in a few places like Princeton and Jersey City, talented and inventive bartenders can now be found running bar programs throughout much of the state—although North and Central Jersey are further along than South Jersey.

Thanks in part to the competition itself, these scattered mixologists have developed a strong sense of community, sharing new tricks of the trade and founding a state chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild. As a further sign of a maturing industry, women, too, are finally being hired to work behind some of the state’s best bars, and for the first time in Iron Shaker history, a pair of female mixologists competed in the finals. They tied for third place.

“The talent is ridiculous this year,” said event organizer John Oliver of Breakthru Beverage Group as he surveyed the action at the finals. “Over the past four years, bartenders have come and learned from each other…which is a testament to this generation proactively self-educating.”

Carlos Ruiz, of Crystal Tavern in Hamburg, exemplifies New Jersey’s bartending talent. After finishing second in last year’s Iron Shaker, Ruiz competed (and placed second) in an international competition in Ibiza, Spain. He is celebrated among his colleagues for bringing foreign trends to New Jersey.

“I’m more than honored for people to copy my drinks,” he said at this year’s Iron Shaker. “As long as you learn it doesn’t matter if you win.” Ruiz again placed second in the Jersey competition.

In the finals, eight contestants competed in five themed rounds. Their drinks were sampled by attendees, but ultimately judged by a panel of three experts.

Competition winner Fette maintained a slight lead over Ruiz throughout most of the finals, impressing judges and attendees with his five drinks in the five rounds: “Never Doubt an Eagle Scout,” with wild Maine blueberries, bourbon, amaro, lemon and Angostura bitters for the introductory punch round; “Cinderella Story,” a twist on the Arnold Palmer that he served out of a golf bag in homage to Caddyshack for the movie round; “Sagistic Bastard,” for which he toasted sage and mixed Laird’s Applejack, Xicaru Mezcal, fresh lime and cranberries for the cranberry round; “Perfect Game,” the baseball-themed beverage that required judges and drinkers to eat a cracker jack before sipping; and “La Femme Fatale,” a mixture of Bluecoat Gin, St. Germain, sherry, clarified grapefruit juice, maraschino and Butterfly pea extract designed to evoke the beauty of Miss America.

Fette is the latest in a string of Verve bartenders who have competed in previous Iron Shakers. “Verve is one of the few places that recognizes us as artists, not just trench workers,” he said. “We’re allowed to be inventive and raw.”

Though Fette has worked at Verve for less than a year, he brings two decades of experience with him to the job, including stints at the elegant Pluckemin Inn in Bedminster and Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club in Bedminster, where he oversaw seven bars.

The 28-year-old got his start at the elbow of his well-heeled grandfather, who used to entertain cocktail party guests with classics from the bar. “Grandpa would get to a certain time of the night when he couldn’t do it anymore,” Fette said. So when the young man turned seven, he took over, even though, “I couldn’t see over the bar.”

With the exception of a few smoked glasses, some passion fruit foam and a blowtorch or two, competitors kept their Iron Shaker offerings technologically and visually more simple than in past years. James Cleaver, from the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, for example, demonstrated his innovative abilities by replacing amaretto with house-made almond syrup, and mimicking Scotch by torching cedar chips to smoke the inside of a glass of rye whiskey.

“If you’re diligent you can find things to replace any ingredient,” said Cleaver.

“Here, you’re valued for what you create,” said Meredith Kuhn, half of the female duo that entered the competition to represent Stone House in Warren. “They’re judging us for our cocktails, showing that girls aren’t just bartenders because they’re hot,” agreed her partner, Samantha Reiner. Kuhn was thrilled to learn that she and Reiner broke the mold after four years of mostly male Iron Shaker finalists. Still, it remained clear that women have barriers to overcome in the bar business.

During a qualifying Iron Shaker heat, a competitor costumed in Prohibition-era garb told Kuhn that she didn’t look like a bartender. After Kuhn asked what a bartender looks like, he answered that bartenders don’t wear dresses.

After beating that guy to the finals, Kuhn—dressed in an elegantly sexy black party dress said, “We’re here because we made kick-ass cocktails.”

At the finals, Kuhn and Reiner finished in a third-place tie with Mario Firmani from Osteria Morini in Bernardsville. Also competing in the finals were Cleaver, from the Ryland Inn; Bobby Frascella from Morristown’s Jockey Hollow Bar & Kitchen;  Ian Alexander from Due Mari in New Brunswick and Rob Silk and Sean Curran, a returning team from Harrah’s. For the first time, two contestants—Graham Christie from Pig & Prince in Montclair and Ivan Seitan from South House in Jersey City—were eliminated in an introductory people’s choice round.

Judging this year’s competition were Joe Gratowski, brand ambassador for Edrington Americas; Brendan Edwards, marketing executive for Inspired Beverage; and Iron Shaker 2013 winner Vincent Miezejewski. New Jersey Monthly is the media sponsor of Iron Shaker.  Brand sponsors of this year’s competition were Michter’s Whiskey, Prairie Organic Vodka, Bluecoat Gin, Tres Agaves Tequila, Treaty Oak Rum, Xicaru Mezcal and Laird’s Applejack.

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