In case you have been under a rock, or perhaps a large single ice sphere made from virgin glacial water further purified through reverse osmosis, double frozen, and hand-carved with a vintage ice pick once used by Jerry Thomas himself, you might not know it but COCKTAIL CONTESTS are everywhere.
Although certainly not new (the International Bartender Association is holding its 37th annual World Cocktail Championship in November) this year so far, there have been no fewer than a dozen national cocktail competitions. Add to this the list of international, regional, local, and individual bars’ contests, and it seems as though one could easily spend more time behind other bars than tending to his or her own. Many spirit brands are involved (Don Q rums, Bacardi, Sandeman Founder’s Reserve Port, Cointreau, VeeV Acai Spirit, Russian Standard Vodka, Tuaca, Bulleit, Bombay Sapphire, Absolut, Barenjager, 10 Cane), as well as notable non-alcohol mixers (Monin, Finest Call, Perfect Puree) and their media partners (Imbibe, Saveur, GQ and in the Mix, to name just a few). And this impressive list is just the tip of the purified glacial water ice cube.
Some prize packages include nothing more than the title of World’s Best Bar something or other. Others trade the winning recipe for travel to locales as far-flung as Portugal, Poland, and Puerto Rico. And still others offered regional winners a slot at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic or Tales of the Cocktail. Those successful challengers got the chance to further compete against the bar-brethren’s best talents from cities across the country in heated throwdowns for the most coveted title of all, Best Mixbarologistender. I kid.
But this raises valid questions – What do these competitions really measure? How are they won? And, most importantly, who are the real winners? Is it the brands themselves? Or is it the competing bartenders? Are we making overly-complicated, highly-nuanced, and wittily-named drinks just for other geeked-out barfolk to “ooh and ahh” over? Or does the average consumer eventually end up with, in their tab-paying opinion, a tastier beverage? Is there a direct link between cocktail contests today and tastier drinks made by better bartenders tomorrow?
If contests only focus on what’s in the glass proffered by someone who had days or weeks to perfect that singular recipe, and they don’t factor in the technical skills, professionalism, ability to think on one’s feet, and general product knowledge of the competitors, then isn’t it just a tasty beauty contest, not a true test of a bartender’s overall skills? Does that even matter? It should, shouldn’t it? Are we assuming that if you can make a kick-ass cocktail, you also know your stuff? Should we?
Conversely, when the judging criteria moves beyond the actual taste, do consumers really care? Do they question whether or not the base spirit is well-represented, if the drink tastes and looks fantastic? Does their enjoyment at all hinge on whether it’s easy to make, has a name that gives a clever nod to the classic from which it is derived, has at least two spirits but not more than four, with everything expressed in ounces, drips, drops, or drams? Do they take one sip and exclaim, “Delicious! But wait, can I get this in Pittsburgh and Dallas?”
“In 1869, I was challenged by five of the most popular and scientific bartenders of the day to engage in a tourney of skill, at New Orleans, with the sequence that to me was awarded the championship of the United States.” Reads the unsubstantiated but credible boast made by Harry Johnson, author of Harry Johnson’s 1882 New and Improved Bartenders’ Manual. How encompassing this “tourney of skill” was, we are left to wonder.
If written today would Mr. Johnson’s seminal work stand a chance against one titled 10,000 Recipes for Ridiculous Cocktails You’ll Never, Ever Make. Perhaps it is time we returned focus to the gestalt of bartending skills and not just the crafting of tasty cocktails? Does one inextricably inform the other?
Okay, forget the Venn diagram; this is becoming more like solving a scrambled Rubik’s Cube. So follow me as I put these questions to representatives from all sides of the puzzle, in hopes that we will all agree on exactly who wins the next time we hear someone exclaim, “And the winner is . . .!”
Jacob Briars (JB) – Leblon Brand Ambassador, and serial creator and organizer of cocktail competitions, including the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup in New Zealand.
Charlotte Voisey (CV) – Wm Grant & Sons Portfolio Manager and winner in 2010 of Tales of the Cocktail’s Spirited Award for Best American Brand Ambassador.
Michael Searles (MS) – Barman, Holeman & Finch, Atlanta, and regional finalist in numerous cocktail contests.
Debbi Peek (DP) – USBG Chicago President, and three-time U.S. competitor in the IBA World Cocktail Competition.
Bobby “G” Gleason (BG) – Master Mixologist, Beam Global Spirits & Wine, and USBG Ambassador.
W. Blake Gray (WBG) – Author of The Gray Report, a wine, food, spirits, and sake blog, and previous wine writer/editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Camper English (CE) – Award-winning cocktails and spirits writer, consultant, and judge, amongst other talents. Check out Camper’s blog at Alcademics.com.
Gaz Regan (GR) – Gaz’s latest book, Gaz Regan’s Annual Manual for Bartenders 2011, is now available. Gaz is also the host of Ardentspirits.com and world-traveling cocktail contest judge and speaker.
BC: It seems today that the best way for a brand to engage with bartenders and consumers is to run a contest. What is the main goal – to get the spirit in the hands of bartenders, or to raise brand awareness with the drinking public?
WBG: The cocktail scene is thrilling right now, and the combination of collaboration and competition for bartenders is one of the key reasons. Bartenders like to show off to each other, and that’s a good thing. It’s worth it for regular patrons like us to know the keywords necessary to get a bartender to make a drink as impressive as he would for his peers.
CV: One of the great things we hope for is increased exposure to our brand for that region’s best/most motivated bartenders. They play around with our brand while developing a competition entry and by default, get to know the liquid better.
BC: This year there have been so many it has been difficult to decide which to enter. Are there criteria to use when choosing to submit a recipe, or do you enter everything you can?
MS: Provided I have the spare budget and available man-hours, I’ll run at every one of them. I don’t need an idea to instantaneously burst into my mind; I trust my talent to ferret one out after I approach the spirit or concept.
BG: As a competitor, I want to compete with brands I believe in. Scheduling is going to play a big part, as well as if there are any traveling issues involved.
DP: Some things I consider are, is this a drink I would drink again, would I order it, and would I pay for it?
JB: What makes a winning cocktail? Motivation, inspiration, creation, preparation, and execution. And, as a final caveat – applying Coco Chanel’s advice – taking one thing off (of the drink) before leaving the house.
BC: In a perfect world, a cocktail contest should benefit the brand, the competitor, the venue, and, in my opinion, ultimately result in universal improvements in the quality of all drinks. Is this like saying a beauty contest makes everyone prettier?
WBG: There is a navel-gazing aspect to bartender competitions in that most of the drinks entered will never be served to the general public. I guess it’s similar to the relationship between auto racing and passenger car engineering; in theory, the best developments will eventually trickle down into better drinks for all of us.
BG: Well said! Obviously I didn’t get prettier or even a bit cuter, but I did get inspired and I think that is the key. Once you enter a competition and see what others are doing, you get a sense of pride in what you do; it will drive you to be better at what you do and that is good for everyone.
BC: Is there a direct link between cocktail contests today and tastier drinks made by better bartenders tomorrow?
CV: I like the idea that cocktail competitions seem to push the ceiling of creativity for better drinks/experiences and not just for gimmick’s sake.
GR: Yes and no. Smoking spirits tableside can be fabulous, and that sort of thing pushes the envelope, but you don’t want to be doing that when you’re six-deep on a Saturday night. Bartenders tend to learn from one another, so if one bartender displays some new methodology in a competition, you can be sure it will be picked up by others. I judge competitions all over the world, America included, and the best bartenders here in the USA most certainly stand up to the best bartenders in other countries. (Though I must say that our brother and sister bartenders from Asia are giving everyone a run for their money these days!)
JB: I’ve never known a competition wherein the bartenders competing don’t become better because of it. They build their speed, confidence, and the ability to communicate their ideas not just to the judges, but also to their guests.
CE: Different contests are looking for bartending skills, mixology skills, salability of the winning cocktail, ability to juggle bottles, or other factors. What I see helping to make better cocktails tomorrow is not necessarily the person who wins a particular contest, but the exchange of information that takes place because of cocktail contests. Bartenders learn from each other at contests, picking up new flavor combinations and techniques that they can bring home afterward
BC: Winning is certainly confidence-building and never a bad thing. What are some other positives, outside of the thrill of competition and the joy of collaboration?
CV: I used to love the discipline of preparing for a cocktail competition. It keeps you on your toes as a bartender and reminds you that all aspects of a cocktail are important – name, appearance, garnish, aroma, taste, glassware, finish, and presentation/technique. Every guest at a bar deserves to be a VIP, just like your competition judge.
BG: My career today is based upon having been in competition. The USBG competitions offer you the opportunity to meet people from all over the world. I have made friends at competitions that will last for the rest of my life and it would not have happened if I didn’t compete. You don’t have to come in first to be a winner! So, while it may sound like a cliché, everyone wins but not everyone takes home the first-place prize.
BC: I’ve not won contests in which I thought I had the better drink. Is this a universal reaction, or just my own overblown confidence in my cocktails?
BG: I wouldn’t enter a competition if I didn’t think I could win. You must have that confidence every time you make a cocktail, whether for a competition or for your customers at your bar. Sure, you get disappointed when you don’t win, but it is not because your cocktail wasn’t good. There is much to learn at a competition and it can really open your eyes to new things.
MS: Jim Meehan judged a contest I was in and, upon my not moving forward at the finals, he pulled me aside and gave me great advice: “Sometimes these things are a carnival and it’s only about the show. Sometimes these things are about a brand finding the next Cosmo. If you’re a barman, the only thing you can do is put out a great drink.”
BC: There has been some recent blog and social network chatter opining that contests are sometimes rigged. Is this just a case of sour grapes?
CV: I can only speak from personal experience, but I believe everything that we do bows to credibility and honest celebration of the trade, including judging competitions. Score sheets should be used and the judges should deliberate until a winner is agreed upon.
GR: I’ve worked with many different companies on lots of competitions, and I’ve never once been told to be anything less than completely objective when judging.
BG: Bartenders need to realize that what they think is a great cocktail may not be what the judges think. For example, I judged a Red Stag competition where the winning cocktail was a Manhattan-style cocktail that
was delicious. Another competitor told me I was an idiot if I thought that cocktail would sell, and that his Red Stag & Red Bull was the best drink ever! Well, here is a word of advice; to me, anything with Red Bull in it will never win any serious competition. It might win at a frat party but then again, I wouldn’t be a judge there, would I?
BC: In your opinion what is the best judging system to employ?
CV: I believe you should have a qualified, working bartender on the panel; a local judge is always ideal in the mix; and, fair, attentive professionals make good judges. Personally I am not a fan of blind judging; I believe that bartender presence is an important part of service and can positively enhance the experience and even the impression/taste of the drink – and that is reality.
GR: There is no “best system,” per se. Each competition is angled differently and each employs its own method of choosing a winner. It’s up to competitors to scrutinize how their work will be judged, and to act accordingly.
DP: I would like score sheets to be made available afterwards. I have never received one and would like to know what I am doing, wrong or right.
CE: The average competition that I judge has one brand person (ambassador, distiller, etc.), one media person/writer, and one bartender. The brand person tends to vote for the drink that tastes like the sponsored spirit, the bartender votes for the most challenging or exciting flavor combination, and the writer often picks the drink that will be popular with a mass audience. When these qualities are all in the same drink, you’ve got a contest-winner. I think this system works well when you’ve got qualified people in each judging slot. I like contests where there is a popular vote in addition to the expert judging. Plus, that means the audience actually gets to try the competing cocktails and feel more a part of the competition.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll add that in addition to being a passionate yet impartial consumer, I’ve been a competitor, a finalist (never winning), a judge, and an organizer a handful of times for local, regional, and national contests.
But, truth be told, even though all this osmotic inspiration is itself a win, I’d like a title, please – a crown or a tiara, a trophy, or just an oversized flask that says “Badass Bartender” would be fine by me!