The Happy Hour Issue: How Baron Stelling went from hobbyist to national cocktail star
Paragary’s bartender Baron Stelling reflects on his new title, Star of the Bar
It’s nerve-racking preparing a cocktail for Charles Joly, known in the industry as one of the best bartenders in the world.
Sacramento bartender Baron Stelling came face-to-face with those nerves, and Joly, champion of the 2014 Diageo Reserve World Class, and about 5,500 onlookers at a national cocktail competition earlier this summer.
The cocktail in question was the Stag Savior, an original blend of Jägermeister, gin, absinthe, Angostura bitters, apricot liqueur, pomegranate grenadine and fresh lime juice. Stelling developed the recipe quite easily, actually, inspired by Jägermeister’s natural herbaceous and fruit notes. It got him through two qualifying rounds to the National Restaurant Association competition in Chicago, representing Northern California against five of the top bartenders in the country.
What did Joly think?
“He told me that if he was at a bar and drinking the drink, he would have happily finished it and gladly ordered another,” Stelling says. “Coming from somebody at that level who has been doing it so long, it’s the highest praise I can think of.”
The other judges agreed. Stelling won, earning the title of 2016’s Star of the Bar.
The victory marks a rapid ascent for Stelling, who started professionally bartending three years ago. When he was 21 years old, he randomly picked up his first cocktail book and became obsessed.
“It’s almost like modern-day alchemy,” he says. “It’s a whole interesting world of how we perceive flavor and how presentation can influence how we taste something.”
But that was back in 2008, before Shady Lady Saloon opened and helped usher in Midtown’s now vibrant craft cocktail culture. So, cocktails became a hobby for Stelling. An intense hobby. He constantly threw questions at bartenders, such as Brad Peters, who eventually gave Stelling his first gig as a barback at Hock Farm. Quickly, he took over the patio bar, the Church Key, and became known around town for his tiki flair.
Now, you can find Stelling—and the Stag Savior—at Paragary’s. He also joined the Shady Lady team last fall, but he’ll maintain his Paragary’s loyalty when he participates in Sacramento Cocktail Week’s annual competition on Wednesday, August 17, at Harlow’s Restaurant & Nightclub. Last year, he and the Paragary’s team won first place at the speed competition, beating out heavyweights Bottle & Barlow, the Golden Bear and Shady Lady. The three-person teams must make six drinks as quickly and accurately as possible, and Stelling takes the planning and choreography seriously.
But ultimately, Stelling keeps entering competitions—he has about a dozen under his belt in just three years—because it means he’ll meet fellow passionate bartenders and challenge his ordinarily cautious personality. That’s the case with Sacramento Cocktail Week as well as larger events, such as Star of the Bar.
“Winning the $5,000 was nice, but that’s not the primary reason I compete,” Stelling says. “It’s furthering myself, pushing myself and getting better grasp of what the industry is all about.”