Here’s a riddle for you: What do carrots, black jelly beans and bacon have in common?
The answer: They’re all delicious in cocktails.
If your instinctive reaction to that sentence is to wonder whether this writer has in fact had too many of said cocktails, well, you probably haven’t been to the Pourhouse on a Sunday evening lately. Because for the past three weeks, that downtown Minneapolis space has been transformed into the Twin Cities’ own bartending version of the Food Network’s “Iron Chef.”
Sunday marks the culmination of this year’s Iron Bartender, an event in which participants throw together cocktails based on a single, often outrageous ingredient, much the way chefs whip up meals on the Food Network show. The four-week event — the semifinals and finals are going down Sunday — pits bartenders at local restaurants and bars against one another in a tournament-style competition.
Amid a growing national obsession with crafted and crazy cocktails, the eight-year-old event is a prime example of the Twin Cities cocktail scene and the eagerness of bar patrons for that evolution.
“We’ve come so far with just the way people perceive cocktails,” said Robb Jones, the head bartender at Spoon and Stable and vice president of the local chapter of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild (USBG), which organizes the event. “A couple of years ago, it was an afterthought. Now, locally, people are expecting educated people to make really great things.”
That includes cocktails with wasabi and Doritos, two other mystery ingredients that have been featured this year. The event’s format and location has evolved over the years. Since the Twin Cities joined the USBG two years ago, Iron Bartender has gained major sponsorship from brands like Tanqueray and Bulleit, and has had the funds to put on a better show, the proceeds of which go to the local branch of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit that works to end childhood hunger.
“We’re the only ones [nationally] that are doing something like this on this grand a scale,” Jones said. “It’s definitely a Twin Cities thing.”
It works like this: Someone from the audience gets invited to spin the Wheel of Death that notates different bizarre foods. Whichever ingredient the wheel lands on becomes the base of the libation creations. A rotating panel of three guest judges, usually a local chef, bartender and media member, determine which is best.
It’s an assignment for a professional and those competing in this year’s Iron Bartender — the first time they opened the doors to any establishment that wanted to participate — couldn’t be much more diverse. In the semifinals, playing for a trip to Kentucky and the Bourbon Trail: bartenders from Volstead’s Emporium, Zen Box Izakaya, Hi-Lo Diner and Hola Arepa.
A $15 entry fee guarantees guests a spot in the crowd, which has routinely filled the Pourhouse main floor and balcony this year, and four 4-ounce cocktails — just keep in mind that they might contain salami or shrimp chips. Deeeee-licious.
“This week,” Jones said, “is going to be huge.”