Chris James Wins Iron Shaker

The Ryland Inn bartender took top prize at the cocktail competition, beating seven of the best bartenders throughout the state.


Chris James of The Ryland Inn takes home the top prize at the first Iron Shaker competition.

A fan favorite, The Ryland Inn’s Chris James triumphed in an evening of close races in the final round of the Iron Shaker held at Park East in Hazlet. Produced by R&R Marketing and New Jersey Monthly, top-shelf sponsors, including Belvedere Vodka, Hennessy, Chandon Sparkling Wine, Glenmorangie, 10 Cane Rum, Bluecoat Gin, Tres Agaves Tequila and Grand Mariner, added a touch of poise to beverages that were brimming with imagination.

An evening sipping delightfully potent potions from top mixologists around the state is a recipe for a great night, but event was designed to showcase the rise in creatively crafted cocktails in the Garden State.

The event’s high level of competition shows a trend toward a sophisticated cocktail culture in New Jersey. "There are a lot of bartenders in restaurants and bars around the state embracing a new way of creating cocktails," said John Oliver of R&R Marketing. "It’s emphasized by the way they garnish, their style, the prep time for each drink, incorporating cooking techniques. It goes beyond the one-two pour."

While the bartenders brewed, audience members mingled in the red-lit dining room, relaxing on leather couches and noshing on such fare as sushi, antipasto and a classy, bite-sized twist on the BLT.

James was one of eight competitors who earned a spot in the finals, advancing after two playoffs in September. (The North competitors squared off at Waterside in North Bergen, while the South competitors went head to head at Porta in Asbury Park.)

For the finals, bartenders were asked to create a signature cocktail for each of the four rounds, incorporating one or more of the sponsors’ liquor in each concoction. Round one, the Shaken or Stirred martini, required either Belvedere Vodka or Bluecoat Gin. The round inspired such drinks as a vodka based martini that featured grapefruit oleo saccharum garnished with an edible pansy.

Round two was the limeless margarita, where the emphasis was on the Tres Agaves tequila and Grand Marnier. For the third round, the ultimate Fall/Winter cocktail, the group offered cold weather libations with touches of fall and winter spices, such as nutmeg and pumpkin.

The final round, Go Buck Wilder, allow contestants to further tap their creative with drinks utilizing everything from salted caramel to multi-colored jello. For those keeping count, that’s 32 drinks for the evening.

The competition’s three judges, Deborah Smith of, Melody Kettle of Hot from the Kettle, and Dominick Rizzo, executive chef of R3 Ventures Restaurant Group Drinks, scored the drinks based on difficulty, appearance and taste. The audience got into the mix, too, sampling and voting for their favorites.

Though the Ryland bartender was in the lead, it was a tight race until the final round, when James served the Memory Lane, a drink meant to evoke childhood nostalgia. It was, essentially, a liquid peanut butter and jelly sandwich, crafted with peanut butter liquor, a concord grape espuma, and served in a glass rimmed with dehydrated Wonder Bread. James’ pulled a relic from his childhood for the glassware: a commemorative Return of the Jedi collins glass from the Burger King kids’ meal.

"I’m really into the ‘wow’ factor when people have cocktails that I make," he said. "I like when you see something and you’re like, ‘What the hell is this?’ and you drink it and it’s a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. At this level it’s anybody’s game," he said. "Anyone can win, everyone’s creative and has a pretty high skill set. I’m happy to be the winner. I’ve been up for three days like, ‘I can’t lose.’"

For his efforts, James received a $1,000 Amex gift card, a crystalized magnum bottle of Moet & Chandon Imperial and, of course, the coveted Iron Shaker Trophy.

Look for the four-page feature in New Jersey Monthly’s December issue for more details about James’ winning concoction and the event’s highlights.

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