It’s Sunday night at Zen’s Lounge, 122 N. 11th St. Emily Bass, bar manager, has been busy prepping for the evening’s imbibing. She wedges limes and carefully slices yellow starfruit to show off its five-point namesake shape. She arranges fruit, spices and a few other strange ingredients onto two trays, covering each with a black napkin.
A few minutes later, two of Lincoln’s masters of mixology enter Zen’s as if they’re entering TV show Iron Chef’s Kitchen Stadium. They smile and joke with patrons, but once behind the bar, they’re all business.
Welcome to Iron Bartender.
On Sunday night, Zen’s bar transforms into its own Kitchen Stadium. Just like the Food Network show’s format, two local bartenders compete head-to-head, mixing cocktails on the fly using a required base alcohol and several secret ingredients. Zen’s conceived of Iron Bartender when they were looking for a way to promote an industry night for bartenders, servers, hosts and anyone else working in the hospitality industry.
After the required alcohol and secret ingredients are revealed, contestants have 15 minutes to channel their inner Morimoto and combine the often challenging ingredients into creative cocktails.
Bass enjoys coming up with exotic ingredients each week.
“We try to find ingredients you wouldn’t’t think about using,” she said.
Some of the stranger ingredients barkeeps have had to work with include the tropical fruit rambutan, saffron flowers, pickled peppercorns and kimchee.
This Sunday, Oct. 2nd, Zen’s house bartender Lili Baier is competing against Las Vegas bartender Bruce Stacey, who moved to Lincoln in late July. While Baier continues to serve customers at one end of the bar, Stacey takes stock of the liquors lining Zen’s shelves and pokes through the extra ingredients piled on a table behind the bar. He pulls out his notebook and begins to scribble.
Bass opens the competition to reveal this week’s secret ingredients. (To keep things interesting, the ingredients won’t be revealed to the crowd until the competition is over.) Stacey picks up a shot glass full of powder, tastes it, then takes a sip of an electric green liquid.
“This tastes like Kool-Aid,” he says. He’s closer than he thinks. Along with the required gin, Stacey and Baier have to use a Kamikaze Kool-Aid mix of five flavors. In at least one drink, they also have to use each of the following: juniper berries, starfruit, dehydrated bing cherries and the health drink ALO.
On the other side of the bar, Baier begins muddling starfruit in the bottom of a shaker for her first drink. She pours in some lime juice, shakes, and gives it a taste before adding more fruit juice and some juniper berries. After 15 minutes, five drinks line the bar. Zen’s judges taste each and pick one for each bartender to mix into a large tasting portion.
It’s the drink-consuming public who ultimately pick each Sunday’s winner. Samples of both cocktails are passed out along with cards that allow patrons to rate each drink on aroma, taste/flavor and overall impression. Stacey’s official entry is Orange Flash – gin and Cointreau flavored with muddled starfruit and lemongrass.
Baier’s cocktail is the delicate Sun and Stars, a fruity gin drink that sparkles with flavors of pineapple, starfruit and citrus.
I smell and taste each drink, rolling the drinks across my tongue to discern the intricacies of each. In the end, I have a hard time picking a favorite, enjoying both the citrus punch of Stacey’s and the delicate balance of Baier’s. I rate both drinks the same, though ultimately Sun and Stars is declared the night’s winner.
Stacey isn’t surprised by the result, conceding that judges didn’t choose what he considered his strongest drink. He enjoyed Baier’s, though, he says.
“Her drink was really good — well-balanced, and it hit every single part of the tastebuds,” he says.
Baier beams when I congratulate her on her win.
“I felt really good about my drinks, and about the aesthetics — the way I presented them,” she says. “I wanted to make as balanced as a drink as I could that incorporated all tastes.”
Some of Lincoln’s best bartenders have competed at Iron Bartender, among them Jake “Hutch” Hutchison of Jake’s, who created a Pluot Bloody Mary, and Matt Brown of Blue Orchid, who surprised with a Spanish Saffron margarita. Eventually, Zen’s will collect all the recipes for a special Iron Bartender drink menu.
Iron Bartender is held every Sunday night at Zen’s Lounge, 122 N 11th St., starting around 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. It is free and open to anyone 21 years or older. And even if you don’t know your bitters from your Belvedere, Iron Bartender is a fun night out for any level of liquor aficionado.
This article was originally posted on Star City Blog on October 13, 2010.