You watch in awe as they carefully craft your cocktail with the precision and speed of a fighter pilot. Dressed to the nines, they barely break a sweat as they muddle, shake and strain to perfection. They are encyclopedias of cocktailia, as they can name every drink from an Aviation to a Zombie Punch. They are bartenders and they are the blood, sweat and tears of the cocktail revolution. So the question we all have is, when they put down the shaker and unstrap the suspenders, what do these superheroes behind the stick actually drink?
The Savory took to the best craft cocktail bars in the country to talk to some of our favorite, most talented bar chefs to find out just what it is that they order at the bar. Each week we will feature one of the nation’s top bartenders and their drink of choice.
This week’s Sav’s Fave is Christopher James of The Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station, NJ.
Christopher is the first bartender outside of Los Angeles that we are featuring, and he hails from the great state of New Jersey. His first foray into bartending was when he begged the owner of the Sea Bright, NJ restaurant Harry’s Lobster House to let him get behind the bar. This led to a series of bartending jobs at Jersey Shore spots. “Back then, all you needed to know was how to make a Cosmo and a Dirty Martini,” says Christopher. He goes on, “The hardest thing about transitioning into cocktail bartending was having to reinvent yourself. You thought you knew everything, and it winds up you knew nothing.” Christopher would often make his way into New York City to hang at the bar at the Flatiron Lounge. That is where he discovered the beginnings of true cocktails. He would study cocktail books in preparation for the movement he saw was about to sweep the nation.
After multiple jobs heading up cocktail bars in both New York and New Jersey, on a whim Christopher sent his resume to the Ryland Inn, which is considered one of the best restaurants in New Jersey and even New York, for that matter. They were the leaders in the “farm-to-table” movement in the area and Christopher knew that he could lend his cocktail knowledge to help develop their spirits program. And that he did. As Director of Spirits and Mixology, he constantly tries to take the progressive environment of the Ryland’s famous kitchen and translate it to the glass. “We have begun experimenting with clarifying juices and have a truly amazing ice program,” says Christopher. And by taking a look at some of his custom cocktails, you can see that he is on the cutting edge of cocktails.
We asked Christopher his mantra behind the bar and he was very quick to answer: “Messy station, messy mind. If you are not organized and focused behind the bar, everything is gonna go to sh**. This applies to every part of the restaurant.” He sees some great things for the future of the cocktail movement: “I think things are going to keep going in an over-the-top manner. We will see more development with things like cocktails on tap, ice programs and progressive mixology. We will see classic cocktail bars popping up, not just in major cities but all across the country.” Christopher also sees a very specific trend happening. “I think there is going to be a huge Latin cocktail resurrection. We will see spirits like Cachaça really coming on strong.”
Christopher’s newest brainchild is the War of the Jack Roses competition taking place at the Ryland Inn. He is working directly with Laird’s Applejack to bring in some of the best professional bartenders from across the country to present their best twist on the classic Jack Rose cocktail. There will be legends of the industry like Gary Regan and Dale DeGroff judging the competition, with the winners receiving a trip for two to the Laird’s distillery.
What Does Your Bartender Drink?
When on the other side of the bar, Christopher likes to keep it simple, although he has very much graduated from the Jersey standard shot of Jack Daniels and a Miller Lite. He enjoys a Laphroaig 1970 14-year-old Samaroli on the rocks.