St. Louis bartenders, slinging suds in the hometown of the world's biggest beer brewery, probably don't get much chance to flex their mixology muscles. That just makes Iron Bartender -- a one-on-one, Iron Chef-style face-off between two local barkeeps at Wild Flower restaurant in the Central West End -- all the more enrapturing.
Iron Bartender was born about three months ago, says Wild Flower bar manager Jason Stewart, when two of his employees caught an Iron Chef episode on the restaurant's TV. (For those too busy to keep up with what the irony-edged, kitschy-cool hipsters were up to five minutes ago, Iron Chef is a Food Network import from Asia that pits master chefs against each other in a gladiator-esque, dual-kitchened arena. The chefs are asked to create dishes on the fly that incorporate a surprise ingredient, such as octopus or wasabi, that's announced at the start of the show.) In the Wild Flower spin-off, a house bartender may compete against an outsider, or two elsewhere-employed mixologists fill out the card. After the secret cocktail component is revealed, contestants get 15 minutes to concoct three separate drinks, which the customers judge on a five-point scale for taste, presentation and originality. The inventor of each libation isn't unmasked until the scores have been tallied, so as to ensure impartial voting; still, Wild Flower's staff tastes victory "much more often than other bartenders," boasts Stewart, who occasionally serves as Iron Bartender MC as well.
Past mystery liquids have included Midori, amaretto, raspberry liqueur, Frangelica, bourbon -- all alcoholic additives so far, which suits Iron Bartender's regulars just fine. (After all, they get to sample six world-premiere drinks for free every week.) Stewart estimates a usual turnout of about 30 to 50 people, unless guest bartenders from a place such as St. Louis Sports Zone participate, in which case "they brought in all their own people, like it was a posse or something," says Stewart. Other bars and restaurants that have thrown their martini shakers into the ring have included Café Eau, Bar Italia and Cusumano's. More and more, Stewart is booking bouts with two outside bartenders, not because his own staff has grown tired of the gimmick but because "I keep running into other bartenders who want to do it but who want to do it so they can compete against their own coworkers," he says. The bar manager is only too happy to oblige, having discovered that in-house rivalries are by far the most heated; in fact, he claims that the contests pitting Wild Flower bartenders against one another put the "wild" back in Wild Flower.
The one-of-a-kind Iron Bartender potables haven't seen the light of day (or the really harsh light of closing time) past their birthdates -- yet. Stewart is compiling a "Best Of Iron Bartender" list that he plans to use as a separate cocktail menu for the restaurant. "People are starting to ask for 'that drink I had last Sunday at Iron Bartender,'" says Stewart, "but to be honest, we have trouble remembering a lot of them, even the next day." Ah -- the thrill of victory, the agony of a brain-cell-destroying hangover.