Iron Bartender Pittsburgh, loosely modeled after the famed TV show Iron Chef, featured smoke machines, good vibes and displays of creativity. At one point, it also featured a brief visit from city firefighters responding to a fire alarm, though the party continued unabated.
All of which is only fitting: Computer programmer Andrew Tepper organized the Nov. 15 competition as a fundraiser for artists participating in Frostburn, the mid-February arts event that is a local offshoot of the anarchic Burning Man festival.
"Because we take no government money, we've never been able to assist artists" financially, says Tepper. But that changed thanks to help from eight bartenders assembled at the Strip District's former V Ultra Lounge.
Each was tasked with creating a crowd-pleasing drink based on a specific theme like "Savory," "College" and "Burning Man." But rather than compelling the use of a secret ingredient, as on Iron Chef, Tepper gave bartenders a cornucopia of ingredients to use. Old standbys like tequila and citrus fruits were available, but so were outlandish mixers like Chambord, tamari and liquid smoke.
Adam Lipinski, for example, crafted a spicy "Szechuan Bloody Mary" with a combination of oyster sauce, edamame, wasabi, vodka and tomato juice. "I had a plan coming in," he says.
But the winning bartender was Wes Shonk of 1947 Tavern, who had his own secret ingredient stashed away: cornflake- and nutmeg-infused cereal milk. He mixed a "Winter Wonderland" cocktail of bourbon, the infused milk, Angostura bitters and honey syrup.
No knock on Shonk's cocktail — which was one of the standouts — but the judging system was flawed. Attendees, who paid $20 each, were each given six votes, with the option of buying more. That made the enterprise susceptible to Citizens United-like distortions, with bartenders standing to benefit from having friends with the most money to spare. Additionally, some bartenders said they were confused by the rules.
Still, this was a fundraiser — it tallied up $850 — and not a high-stakes competition.
"It was a lot of fun," says Shonk, "and that's what matters."