Cheers! Iron Shaker Mixes Fancy Drinks and Fun Times

New Jersey’s premier mixologists—armed with sweet, sour, savory and spicy ingredients—vie to win the second Iron Shaker bartender competition.

John Jansma of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham
John Jansma of Restaurant Serenade in Chatham serves the cocktails that bring him victory.
Photo by Ryan Hulvat

Cotton candy, pop rocks, house-made blackberry hot sauce and sweet-pea purée. These were among the ingredients and garnishes that bartender John Jansma swirled in or sprinkled atop the winning cocktails he devised for this year’s Iron Shaker, an annual competition to find the best bartender in New Jersey.

Jansma, who normally holds sway behind the bar at Restaurant Serenade in Chatham, was among eight hopefuls in the final round of the statewide competition on October 9 at Atlantic City’s Trump Taj Mahal. The finalists were chosen in a previous round, four from the northern New Jersey semifinals at Lulu’s in the W Hoboken hotel, and four from the southern semis at the Downtown in Red Bank. The second annual competition was organized by West Caldwell-based R&R Marketing and sponsored by New Jersey Monthly.

Armed with a cotton candy machine, an aerolatte milk frother and a Ninja-brand professional blender, Jansma won or tied for first place in each of the four categories: sweet, sour, savory and spicy.

“Winning the competition will help me share my recipes and ideas so others can have some fun,” said Jansma as he accepted his trophy, a magnum of Moët & Chandon and a $1,000 American Express gift card.

A panel of experts judged the mixologists’ creations, as did guests who purchased tickets for the event. Judges Deborah Smith of the website Jersey Bites, cocktail expert and author Warren Bobrow, and Montclair Food & Wine Festival cofounder Melody Kettle expressed delight over some of the innovations.

Second-place winner Jonas Koep of Stone House in Warren poured a chamomile cocktail from a China tea pot into dainty tea glasses. Matt Brown from Pig & Prince in Montclair lit a cedar plank on fire to smoke the inside of dozens of little plastic serving cups. Rob Sorenson of Lefty’s Tavern in Barnegat muddled balsamic vinegar with mint he grows in his garden before mixing it with puréed pineapple. And for the spicy round, Lenny Schafer of the Iron Room in Atlantic City served a trio of mini-drinks on a plate interspersed with spoonfuls of palate-cooling sorbet.

Some competitors, like Jansma, kept their recipes simple. “You can play with so many flavors,” he said, “but sometimes you only need the perfect balance of a few.”

Other competitors put more than 10 elements into some drinks. “Half an ounce of Coco Lopez coconut cream, one-quarter ounce St. Germaine, one ounce pineapple juice…” began Shawn Warren of the Downtown in Red Bank to describe his five-ingredient sweet entry, the Coco Razz.

“I brought about 30 ingredients,” said Koep. His arsenal included pepperoni and thyme-infused honey.
The mixologists integrated food in critical ways, from house-smoked fresh grapefruit used by third-place winner Steve Fette of Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club in Bedminster, to the homemade chocolate-malted marshmallow in one of Schafer’s concoctions. Brown decorated his spicy entry with cold-smoked salami spread pushed into mini-ice cream cones.

Instead of getting fancy with the edibles, competitor Kevin Lauter caught the judging panel’s attention by making multiple drinks per round instead of the required one. “I’m here for the Iron Shaker, not the Iron Chef,” said the bartender from Sirena Ristorante in Long Branch.

Nevertheless, the optional food component did allow bartenders to reflect and highlight the complexities in some of the spirits. “This competition is a perfect opportunity for gin to come out of the closet,” said Paula Congote of Phillips Distilling Company, maker of Prairie Organic Gin and Centinela Tequila. “Our gin complements all kinds of flavors. From smoky to citrusy to sugary,” she added.

The event also showcased Belvedere Vodka, 10 Cane rum, Hennessy cognac, Grand Marnier, Chandon Sparkling and Ardbeg 10-year-old single malt Scotch.

Click here for some recipies of the event.

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