‘Iron Bartender’ returns to Oahu
One of Honolulu's more prestigious bartending competitions returned for the first time in four years this week, as the 2013 Bacardi "Iron Bartender" competition got underway at The Republik on Tuesday, March 12.
The last time the contest was held was in 2009, when Titus Nakagawa took home top honors at Ryan's Bar and Grill in Ward Centre. Prior to the two years it was held there, the "Iron Bartender" contest took place at Palomino restaurant in Harbor Court before that spot closed in 2007.
"We just wanted to bring it back," said Flash Hansen, The Republik's promotions manager. "It all goes back to (general manager) Rob (Ramsey) being part of 'Iron Bartender,' and I used to do bartending contests at the Wave Waikiki."
Ever since Nakagawa won in 2009, however, Hansen said the trend in Honolulu has been more towards mixology and away from the traditional skills bartenders were expected to have.
"It's slowly evolved into just the mixologist thing," he said. "And that's an important component of being a bartender. But it's not the only one.
"I mean, look at Jesse (Greenleaf) from Duke's Waikiki. He can make fancy, handcrafted cocktails that take two minutes to make all day long.
"But at Duke's, that's not gonna cut it. He has to make drinks as fast as he can, his entire shift. Not everyone can do that."
Greenleaf, along with Murphy's Bar & Grill's Brent Clem, Hilton Hotels' Christina Maffei, Indigo's Jason "J-Rod" Rod, The Republik's Ryan "Mo" Sanford and Alicia Yamachika of Pint & Jigger, Nobu Waikiki and Uncle Bo's, were the six invited competitors for the first round of the contest, which continues on March 19 and March 26 before the finals are held on April 2. Two bartenders will qualify for the finals each week.
Unlike other bartending battles, "Iron Bartender" judges were asked to evaluate each competitor on not just an original drink recipe, but also speed and accuracy, personal style/personality and a cocktail made from a list of "secret" ingredients that aren't revealed until it's time to take 10 minutes and make a drink.
With a previous "Iron Bartender" champ (Rod) and a veteran bartender with plenty of contest experience (Greenleaf) in the mix, Tuesday's first round was no walk in the park. I was impressed by Rod, Greenleaf and Sanford's original cocktail creations, but Yamachika quickly established herself as a worthy competitor during the speed and accuracy round.
Sanford and Rod also stepped up during the personal style/personality portion of the contest, with Sanford playing "ice basketball" against judge Mark "Gooch" Noguchi of Taste Table and J-Rod showing off some of his flair bartending (and martial arts!) skills.
And while the idea of a mystery basket of ingredients sounds good in theory, it was tough to enjoy any of the cocktails made this week. Cayenne pepper, carrot juice, apple cider vinegar, fresh ginger, green tea ice cream, poha berry jelly and Cazadores tequila do not make very tasty cocktails. Trust me on this one, folks.
In the end, it was Sanford and Yamachika who scored the highest among the judges, which included yours truly and Noguchi along with Young's Market Co. Hawaii's Christa Wittmier and Joey Gottesman. It was close on my scoring sheet — only two points separated the first and second place finishers.
The 2013 "Iron Bartender" competition continues next week with Yooey Kim (The Republik), Justin Keane, Tanner Mock (Pint & Jigger), Kyle Moniz (Addiciton Nightclub/Halekulani), Roxanne Siebert (V-Lounge/Safehouse) and Marty Simjian (SoHo Mixed Media Bar). On March 26, Yukie Aizawa (53 By the Sea), Amy Greenleaf (Duke's Waikiki), Quinn Mears (Hula Grill/Pearl Ultralounge), Dave Newman (Pint & Jigger), Ricky Schneider (Tsunami), Christian Self (thirtyninehotel) and Tim Rita (Monkeypod Kitchen Ko Olina/Manifest) will compete for the last two spots in the final round.
Jason Genegabus is Entertainment Editor/Online at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser and has covered the local nightlife, music, bar and entertainment scenes since 2001. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter and Google+.