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 bartend-
ing, 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 Ha-
zlet. 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.” ■
On The Rocks
Before a panel of judges and a festive crowd, 8 of Jersey’s
bartending elite mixed it up to determine who rules the roost.
THE MOVERS BEHIND THE SHAKERS: The Iron Shaker competition was produced by R&R Marketing in partnership
with New Jersey Monthly. Top-shelf sponsors included Belvedere vodka, Hennessy cognac, Chandon sparkling wine,
Glenmorangie Scotch, 10 Cane rum, Bluecoat gin, Tres Agaves tequila and Grand Marnier liqueur.
TINY TOASTS: Guests sampled the
night’s 32 competing cocktails in
mini-portions, but could buy beer
and regular drinks if they wished.