Stellar credentials make this multi award-winning bartender a natural choice for our first Mixologist profile
by Laura D.C. Kolnoski • Photos By Robert Nuzzie
As 2015 drew to a close, famed bartender Christopher James learned that he was a regional semifinalist in the Heaven Hill Brands Bartender of the Year competition; in June, he’ll join colleagues nationwide at Puerto Rico’s St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort to showcase his skills for a shot at the contest’s $15,000 prize. It’s just the latest accomplishment for James, who left his position as Bar Director at Jockey Hollow Bar and Kitchen in Morristown on New Year’s weekend to undertake a new challenge: general manager at a restaurant under construction at Monmouth Park Racetrack in Oceanport, scheduled to open this spring.
The highly anticipated indoor/outdoor eatery, unnamed as this issue went into production, will feature chef James Corona (James’s friend of over 20 years), who offered the Monmouth County resident his first GM post after years of dazzling customers with meticulously crafted and imaginative cocktails.
“As much as I loved Jockey Hollow, this is a chance to be leader of the entire operation, not just the bar,” James said. “I can utilize all the knowledge and experience I’ve compiled working at different restaurants; it’s the culmination of my career.”
At Jockey Hollow, James created programs for three bars, the kitchen, and special events. At the most popular, the Vail Bar, he offered more than 15 signature seasonal cocktails, 54 modern classic and traditional cocktails, and a spirits catalogue of over 300 labels. Renowned for his Old Fashioned, served over his signature hand-chipped, crystal-clear ice cubes, James was “director of spirits and mixology” at the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station before joining Jockey Hollow.
Over the years, he has trained staff, conducted classes, and become known for “ruthless” bar cleanliness. His recipes have been featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and a variety of trade publications.
James’s resume lists four first-place, five second-place, and two third place awards in cocktail competitions from Manhattan to Mexico, as well as National Finalist and Peoples’ Choice awards in competitions sponsored by prestigious names including Jack Daniels, Don Julio, Patrón, and Bombay Sapphire. While at the Ryland Inn, he created and coordinated the War of the Jack Roses National Cocktail Competition, sponsored by Monmouth County’s Laird & Company distillery. Customers have followed him since his early days at the Asian-fusion Teak Restaurant in Red Bank, where he worked from 2003–2005.
“I was fortunate to be introduced to a lot of exotic ingredients in drinks there, including shiso, lychee, lemongrass, jackfruit, coconut milk, and tamarind,” he said. Next was a stint as bar manager just blocks away at the famed Ashes Cigar, Steakhouse, and Supper Club (now Char Steakhouse). Ashe’s fabled velvet roped second story was a high-volume nightclub/event space featuring seasonal specialty cocktails and bottle service. There, James created house specialty cocktails featuring fresh juices and house-made syrups, later becoming additionally trained in cigar service.
James also tended bar at Asbury Park’s Watermark overlooking the boardwalk, known for its modern interpretations of classic cocktails, where he, “formed a concrete foundation on how cocktails work, i.e., sweet versus sour and strong versus weak, how to properly build cocktails for service, when to shake, when to stir, and why,” he explained. “I became an expert at jigger pouring, and maintained the refined methods practiced there.” Other highlights of his career included 709 Point Beach in Point Pleasant Beach and the Draft House in Long Branch, where he experimented with different emulsifiers and more progressive mixology methods.
“The most fun is to create drinks based off classics, or concept drinks where I come up with a clever name first and then devise the recipe,” said James. For example: over the holidays at Jockey Hollow, customers enjoyed his “Dougie,” featuring a spirit derived from Douglas fir sap. (The name was a play on the tree as well as the 2010 dance and song by Cali Swag District.)
This winter, in addition to planning his latest venture at Monmouth Park Racetrack, James will be preparing drinks with brown liquors “to warm the body” in his fully-stocked home bar.
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