Sunday, 01 November 2015 11:39

‘Iron Bartender’ Competition Celebrates ‘Cocktail Renaissance’

Written by  Dwayne Hoover
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Iron Bartender contestant Maureen DiVirgilio Iron Bartender contestant Maureen DiVirgilio PHOTO: Katy Batdorff

Iron Bartender: Championship Finals
Grand Rapids Public Museum
272 Pearl St. NW, Grand Rapids
Nov. 18, 7 p.m., $10, (616) 929-1700

If you’re familiar with the television cooking show Iron Chef, then you’re at least familiar with the general premise of the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild’s Iron Bartender competition.

It’s pretty simple: Bring in some talented culinary professionals, throw some surprise ingredients at them and see the creative ways they use said ingredients to create something delectable.

Much like the show, the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild’s event brings in a panel of judges to determine the mixologists’ fate, adds an element of stress with a time limit and keeps competitors guessing with unconventional secret ingredients. October’s competition saw bartenders figuring out how to work squid ink into cocktails — but the fight is not over.

The Iron Bartender: Championship Finals is set for Nov. 18 at the Grand Rapids Public Museum. Attendees can enjoy cocktail samples, snacks, a cash bar and even partake in some audience participation with some of West Michigan’s best bartenders. By the end of the night, the next Iron Bartender will be crowned.

And while the event is designed to be a fun, light-hearted night with tasty beverages and great people, it also serves to celebrate the emerging “cocktail renaissance” movement. Today’s professional bartenders are not just throwing pre-made ingredients into a glass. They want people to know that there’s art and science behind it.

“We’ve worked to get recognized as a chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild,” said bartender Victor Cruz of Salt of the Earth in Fennville. “Everybody’s friendly and everybody’s recognizing that it’s a really awesome movement that’s going on right now. We all talk on a weekly basis, share ideas and are involved in different events.”

That camaraderie has been the driving force behind West Michigan’s successful cocktail scene, which continues to grow and enables bartenders to be creative and explore new territory, whether that’s inventing something completely new or reimagining a classic drink.

“I really like the classic cocktail movement,” Cruz said. “I think it’s a really sweet thing to bring these awesome cocktails back. I like to learn as much as I can about the classics, play around with those and add my own little spin on them.”

Bartender Andy Szumowski, who mans the 400-square-foot specialty cocktail lounge, said he not only enjoys reinventing the classics, but feels it’s an enormously vital part of the profession.

“The referencing of history is so important because it enriches the tradition,” Szumowski said. “In respecting the tradition you have the capacity for a lot of freedom. Once everybody’s on the same page about what already happened you can then collectively and individually go forward in your own ways.”

Szumowski likened the practice to being a jazz musician.

“You can go out there with a drum set or a bass and play the craziest stuff you can possibly think of at that moment,” Szumowski said. “But without an understanding of the tradition of where that instrument has gone, where it came from and how people used to play it in a cutting edge way, you don’t really have a round, rich understanding of what to do yourself.”

But for cocktail newcomers, like Szumowski, having a supportive group of veterans willing to share their knowledge is essential for overall growth.

“The scene has been unexpectedly and exceptionally welcoming,” Szumowski said. “Every single bartender I interacted with in Grand Rapids for the last five years has gone out of their way to not only be very nice and accommodating, but also informative and entertaining.”

Over at the Winchester, bartender Maureen DiVirgilio said the welcoming, thriving scene is lucky to have the Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild and its specialty events, like the Iron Bartender competition.

“I think it’s great they’re promoting knowledge,” DiVirgilio said. “I think that’s the biggest asset that you can have for your clientele and your guests. Events like this help promote awareness of this being an art and a trade.”

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