Battle of the Bartenders Kicks-off Winter Games Festivities

A Night of Enjoyment Greatly Blesses the Community
Since 1986, people have been gathering at the Iowa Great Lakes to revel in everything Winter. Some travel from a distance, while others walk out their front door for a chance to enjoy Okoboji. In 2013, Parks Marina decided to provide an evening of fun for the locals, kicking off Winter Games with a “Locals’ Night” called “Battle of the Bartenders!”

“We wanted a way for the working industry to have a night of fun for themselves before the chaos of the weekend began,” said Debbie Parks, Marketing Director at Parks Marina. “We figured that everyone has a favorite bartender or server in town, and why not celebrate them!”

From the start, community participation has been off the charts. The first year, the winnings went directly to the bartender, and Parks said everyone quickly realized that this night should be the premier kick-off charity event of Winter Games.

“It was an ‘A-ha’ moment!” she added. “What a way to bless our community and bring us all together!”

Parks Marina invited all the local restaurants and bars to participate. Bartenders are given a list of included spirits and asked to provide mixes and to decorate their tip jar. Participants always receive a swag bag and commemorative shirt. Today, many local businesses donate towards the swag bags and the top three bartenders receive some major prizes. Winners get their name on the traveling trophy and the drink is featured on the year’s Barefoot Bar summer menu.

“Best of all, they receive major bragging rights in the community,” Debbie exclaimed.

The event is free to the public and everyone 21 and older is invited to taste and tip BIG. The top three tip jars pay out 50-30-20 percent of all the monies collected from each tip jar, going towards the winning bartenders’ charities of choice.

“The event has grown ten-fold! From what started in a tent on the lakefront of Parks Marina, we’ve had to move into our huge boat club building,” she shared. “Our first year of charitable giving garnished $2,300, and in 2023, the amount has grown to $25,000.”

Parks greatly appreciates the many volunteers and matching donors who come to the event or anonymously help grow the pot. “Some will give to ensure their charity wins or for their love of their favorite watering holes and servers.”

Charities that have benefited throughout the years have included Make a Wish of Iowa, local anti-bullying programs, Ronald McDonald House, Veteran’s organizations, and local families who are suffering tragedies like house fires or kids with illness. Since 2023, over $80,000 has been dispersed. The 2023 winners were:

Drakes at the Lakes
Foundation for Exceptional Warriors

Adley’s Army

Outback Lounge
Harmelink Family

Helping Make the Battle Successful
Kelsey Schmitz has enjoyed and been a part of all aspects of the Battle of the Bartenders. From helping manage the event to working the bar, she loves how it helps people who need an extra touch from the community.

She began working at Parks Marina in 2013 and attended her first Winter Games in 2015. In 2016, she began managing the event. Despite moving to Storm Lake in 2019, she’d continue to come back to help with the Winter Games festivities. Unfortunately, in 2020, her boss at Puff’s in Storm Lake was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and at the end of 2021 began a stem cell transplant.

“I reached to Parks Marina and asked if Puff’s could participate in the battle, in hopes we could raise some money to help with his medical and travel expenses,” Kelsey shared. “In 2022, we were the first bar from a distance to participate in the battle. While we didn’t place in the top three, we were close.”

In 2023, Puff’s represented Adley Bral, who was born as a micro-preemie at 1 lb, 13 oz. and experienced a 129-day stay in the NICU, fighting countless battles including Neuroblastoma. Kelsey said they placed second and they were so thankful they could help the Bral family through their difficulties.

“I love that I’ve been able to experience this event from every angle, working as a staff member or manager to participating as a bartender in the battle or as a participant sampling and voting,” she added.

How Does it Work?
The rules have been tweaked through the years. Currently, bartenders are given a list of spirits sponsored by a liquor company they are eligible to use. From there, the bartenders can choose from a list of approved mixers and garnishes to create their own original cocktail mix.

“It’s always a fun experience to see how people use the different ingredients provided and create a completely unique and different cocktail for everyone to enjoy,” Kelsey said. “Most of us keep our special mixture a secret until that night.”

She remembers one of the early winners being the Okoboji Charlie – a Jose Cuervo Gold, Orange Juice, Pineapple Juice and grenadine.

Schmitz said the set-up is intense and the entire Parks Marina crew comes together to make sure all the buildings are ready. A few hours before the battle, the tables are set up and the liquor is placed at each bartender’s station. The bartenders start showing up and are allowed to have all their mixers ready, shot (sample) glasses prepared and signage displayed, but they aren’t allowed to pour any samples until the battle officially begins.

“As a bartender, you almost can’t pour samples fast enough, and as a participant, you work through the crowd, looking for bartenders you know or charities you’d like to support and then decide which drink is your favorite,” Kelsey said. “It is exciting to wait for the winners! They start with third place, and you hope to hear your name, but also nope not because, of course, you would like to be second or first. Even if you don’t place in the top three, it’s still a good feeling, knowing you raised money for a great cause.”

Whether you’ve been to the Battle of the Bartenders or not, the tenth anniversary is definitely the one to attend. On Thursday, January 25, make sure to visit Parks Marina to enjoy IV Play and help give back to the Iowa Great Lakes area.

“I’m super proud of this event!” Debbie said. “The Battle of the Bartenders brings us together as a community in celebration of our hard work organizing a great weekend to come, and at the same time, we get to do a ton of good for both local and national charities alike. This night sets a positive tone for the entire Winter Games Weekend!”