The fairly recently formed Grand Rapids Cocktail Guild bills itself as “A local collegiate of experienced professionals working to develop, enrich and share the history, art, culture and enjoyment of the distilled spirits.” Based upon their second  “Iron Bartender” challenge, they  appear to be succeeding in fulfilling that mission.

The brainchild of Torrence O’Haire, well-known chef, culinary educator and all around knowledgeable and friendly dude, the Guild has attracted attention throughout the West Michigan area.

One way the guild promotes West Michigan’s burgeoning spirits scene is hosting regular events that highlight the amazing bartending professionals in the area. “Iron Bartender Episode Two: Euro-Trash Talk” was held in Stella’s Lounge, a whiskey bar/retro arcade mishmash of 80s strangeness in Grand Rapids.

Three competitors went head to head, required to use three secret ingredients however they chose within two cocktails. Each contender had 15 minutes to create their masterpieces before presenting them to the judges panel. The entry fee was $5, which all went to a charity organization. The Guild is a non-profit, and supporting local charities is part and parcel of their organization. This time, the money went to The Red Project.

The competitors this month were a lively bunch. Rob Hanks, Bar Manager of Reserve Wine & Food, Jenney Grant, spirit consultant who most recently worked with Coppercraft Distillery, and Heather Missad, Apertivo’s quirky, creative cocktail chemist. Chatting with them was like consulting a distilled dictionary. They are all passionate and excited about what they do and put thought and effort into their work.

“There’s a whole other world out there that’s equally as fun [as beer]. Just getting people excited about different flavors, trying something new,” said Hanks. His participation in the Guild stems from his passion.

Missad shared her reasons for doing what she does,  “I like the continuous learning process of our industry. I appreciate being amongst enthusiasts,” she said.“It’s not something we are doing on the side, it’s something we are and that is noble in its endeavors.”

“People don’t recognize that bartending is an actual profession, and it’s an important profession,” Missad added. “I think that [to be able to] end people’s day [on a positive] is as important as starting someone’s work day. We have excellent, amazing talent here in Michigan. Being organized [like this] is a great opportunity.

The competition starts and secret ingredients are revealed, highlighting the ‘Euro Trash’ theme:fresh marjoram, Old World Olive Press 25-year balsamic and/or olive oil and rosewater. Using the age old method of “rock, paper, scissors” to decide who was up first, Grant stepped behind the bar, followed by Hanks and finally Missad.

Each competitor came armed with two of their own special ingredients (such as tobacco tincture) to battle it out and managed to answer audience questions about their craft at the same time. Another fun aspect of the event was the trading cards, done by Killustration Studios, featuring each competitor as superhero (or supertender, if you will) with stats and a recipe on the back.

Complete with an emcee, time keeper and video monitors for the behind the scenes action, the event was fun, engaging and had plenty of audience participation, including a guest judge for each round AND free samples for attendees. Yum.

Ultimately, the winner was decided by the esteemed panel of judges—former Iron Bartender champion Brandon Joldersma of Virtue Cider, Eric Hultgren of MLive, Spirits Importer Gregg Lemkau of CCB Horizon and Jon O’Connor, founder of Long Road Distillers. Missad won the competition with her two drinks. First up was a beer cocktail, featuring balsamic vinegar, marjoram, New Holland’s The Poet, and bourbon. She ended with a concoction featuring St. Germain, Long Road Distillers gin, pomegranate molasses, lemon, whey of yogurt, blended with ice and floated with rosewater.

Follow the Guild at on Facebook and be on the lookout for their next Iron Bartender event, “Iron Bartender Episode Three: American History,” on July 22.

Gravel Bottom Craft Brewery