Netflix taps city bartender for new show
Raj Shukla appears on 'Drink Masters,' streaming Oct. 28
You’ll have a chance to see Fort Wayne resident Raj Shukla literally shake things up on the Netflix series Drink Masters.
The accomplished bartender, who has worked at Copper Spoon and Mercado in town, is one of 12 contestants vying for the $100,000 prize on the upcoming reality competition show set to stream Friday, Oct. 28.
“I’m really excited that I get to represent myself and Fort Wayne,” Shukla said. “It’s something that’s really special that I’m able to represent something that I really care about.”
taking the dive
Shukla says his passion for mixing drinks began at a young age, thanks in large part to his father.
“I was the first one born in this country from my family,” he said. “My dad moved here from Nairobi, Kenya, to become a pilot and an aeronautical engineer. Through college, he worked at restaurants, fine dining and hospitality. When I came around a few years later, he was getting out of his career of flying and more hospitality, he realized he had a really good knack for it.
“Growing up, we had a lot of wine bibles and wine connoisseur magazines and literature on hospitality, so that’s where I kind of got that from at a young age.”
Born in Nashville, Tennessee, are growing up down Interstate 24 in Murfreesboro, Shukla and his family moved to Fort Wayne during his sophomore year in high school. After attending Northrop and IPFW, he showed an interest in bartending, which only grew with time.
“I definitely took a deep dive down the rabbit hole when it comes to all things spirits and beer and wine, and all the different combinations and ingredients, and where they come from and how to use them correctly,” he said. “God knows that I made some drinks that did not taste good.”
It’s safe to say those days of mixing drinks that don’t “taste good” are well behind him.
“It was making a determination that, ‘Hey, fresh juice tastes a lot better in this whiskey sour or this margarita than that plastic bottle of sweet and sour mix you buy off the shelf,’ ” he said. “It’s just that realization that if you use fresher ingredients, the drinks are going to taste better, just like a dish would have on the dinner table or at a nice restaurant.”
catching netflix’s eye
It’s attention to detail that hasn’t just made him a good bartender, but one that has received national attention, leading to an appearance on the competition show.
“In 2021, I was one of the top five bartenders in the nation through the (United States Bartenders’ Guild) world class global competition,” he said. “After the national finals happened, about a week later, I got couple messages from the casting department from the show.”
Following an auditioning process, Shukla and 11 other contestants arrived in Canada last November for filming, along with judges Julie Reiner and Frankie Solarik and host Tone Bell.
“They are people that have been in the industry a long time,” Shukla said of the judges. “We all knew who they were. Frankie and Julie are OGs, if you will, in the cocktail world.
“With the theme of the show being ‘drink masters,’ they wanted to see not just what was in the glass, but the presentation and the whole nine yards,” he said. “It was really about bringing everything you have to the table, your personality, your hospitality, your cocktail skills with the balance and the ingredients. It’s about how quick you can think on your feet.”
And even though they were competing, Shukla said it was a friendly atmosphere, with many of the bartenders having already met through competitions and conferences.
“When you’re in that echelon of bartenders and people in the hospitality world, everyone is super cordial and friendly,” he said. “We’re all in the same family.”
But just like any family, each contestant had their strengths and weaknesses.
“Every contestant brings their own personality, their own style and flair to the competition and to the show, which is what makes the show amazing,” Shukla said. “Some people might not have the same Rolodex of ingredients or how to use them or knowledge on how to use some of the items in our pantry, but everyone that was a phenomenal bartender. It’s just those curveballs that kept getting thrown at us every day.”
what’s in a name?
While the show calls the contestants mixologists and Shukla likes the title, he doesn’t get too hung up on it.
“If you come to a bar I’m working at, and you ask me, ‘What are you?’ I’m a bartender,” he said. “The word mixologist is fun, it’s great, it does kind of highlight the precision, the technique, and things that are involved, but at the end of the day, a mixologist does what a bartender does.
“We’re here to help people and make really great drinks and create a great environment for people to have fun,” he said.
In his eyes, a mixologist is someone who takes their bartending skills to the next level.
“It’s something I’m very passionate about,” he said. “I’m very passionate about hospitality, taking care of people, taking care of my teammates that I’m in the trenches with there at the bar.
“When it comes down to the craft of it, I really feel that what sets a good bartender apart is that passion.”
And for novices out there, he says to keep it simple, noting he’d “make you the best rum and Coke you’ve ever had.”
“For newer bartenders or people that want to make drinks at home, I’d say, start with the classics,” he said. “Make those classic cocktails correctly and make them well. Understand why they work so well. Once you get that foundation, the sky is the limit.”