Top 5 tips to win a cocktail competition
Some pretty riveting cocktail competitions have taken place in recent months, but what steps do bartenders need to follow to become a crowned master of mixology?
Just imagine: the heat of the spotlights, the hushed chatter of an excited audience, the fixed stare of the judges, the sound of your heart beating in your chest – now is your time to shine. Enticing arenas for both industry players and mainstream spectators, cocktail competitions give bartenders the chance to step out of the shadows of the back bar and into the light.
As bartending continues to grow in prestige across the globe, cocktail competitions are more popular than ever before, making stars out of those who impress. It has been a long-standing industry gripe that worldwide recognition bestowed on revered chefs eludes the humble mixologist, yet large-scale competitions such as Diageo Reserve World Class and Bacardi Legacy help bartenders make their name known not only in industry circles, but in households too.
However, it is not simply for the sake of altruism that drinks companies host such competitions, for they have astutely recognised the global resurgence in cocktail culture and, consequently, consumer interest in the industry. By throwing bartenders into the cocktail pit, brands give people the chance to view the fight for mixology glory and, of course, gain intense product exposure in the process.
Bartending has undoubtedly become a spectator sport, and while old-hand mixologists may lament the supposed loss of traditional bartending values, others simply claim such competitions pay overdue plaudits to the industry. For famed bartender and experienced competition entrant and judge, Ryan Chetiyawardana, “these competitions are a great indicator of where the industry is going and how much brands are investing in bartenders.”
What does the future hold for cocktail competitions?
But where can cocktail competitions go from here? Will they keep getting bigger, better and more extravagant year-on-year, or will they simply plateau? Opinion is divided in the industry. For Matteo Fantacchiotti, global commercial director for Diageo Reserve, cocktail-making competitions may soon reach the summit of their potential. “The biggest opportunity now is to make the bartending community a capital driver in the industry without focussing solely on competitions,” he says.
For Chetiyawardana, competitons will continue to grow, but he warns: “There’s a danger of cocktail competitions losing the ability for the bartender to be creative. I used to love working to a brief in a competition and creating something unique, but this ability will dwindle if the competitions are geared soley towards finding a new ambassador or signature serve.”
This is a concern shared by many industry members – if cocktail competitions are geared predominantly towards finding the perfect face for a brand, will enough emphasis be placed on education and creative development to keep brand-funded competitions credible? This question will undoubtedly be answered in time, but for now at least, bartending competitions are here to stay. And, with this in mind, we ask the question: what is it that separates the winners from the rest? A group of industry experts let us in on their secrets to success.
Click through the following pages to see the top five tips to win a cocktail competition.
1. Plan and be prepared
Competitions vary greatly, but most will require entrants to demonstrate their own signature serve and communicate their reasoning behind it. Judges will be looking for an impeccably perfected technique and seamless performance, which would not be possible without extensive practise. Fantacchiotti claims: “In competitions like Diageo Reserve World Class, standards are higher than ever and there’s no room for error. Bartenders should give a lot of thought to the design and technique they want to show off and plan for every challenge we could possibly put in front of them to ensure their performance is smooth. They should also ask themselves, how could I meet all of the elements while making sure I tell my story and watch the clock at the same time? The only way to do this is with practise.”
Show you know the brand
Most cocktail competitions are sponsored by brands wanting to showcase their products, and they usually place a brand ambassador in the judging panel. Entrants would therefore be wise to take heed of Chetiyawardana’s advice to “show some respect and represent the sponsor in the right way. You don’t need to be stuck up, but have a little awareness about the brand”. While Sebastian Hamilton-Mudge, global brand ambassador for Beefeater gin and judge for the national heats of the Beefeater 24 competition, says: “Competitions are created by brands which have paid huge amounts of money to put on a show, so obviously the brand should be the star.” On top of brand knowledge, participants should also research their customers – the judges. According to Jim Meehan, founder of New York’s PDT and judge of this year’s Beefeater 24 final, “you really have to know your judges and cater to them. It’s like any type of bartending, you have to know who you are serving.”
Tell a story
It is no secret in bartending competitions that an adept orator will be viewed more favourably than a meek and inarticulate mouse. Telling a story about their cocktail will add entertainment value and memorability to a participant’s performance and is a particularly important factor when the end prize is a brand amabassador role. “At Beefeater 24, we wanted to see the winner represent our brand around the world, so they had to be able to demonstrate their knowledge and presentation skills during the competition,” explains Hamilton-Mudge. Fantacchiotti adds: “A participant should prepare a unique story as this can add another level to their performance when told articulately. They should explain what their cocktails mean to them as a bartender – what is its history? How do the flavours complement each other? What trends does it utilise?”
Read the brief
Bartending competitions often come with a strict rulebook and brief – a breach of either will result in failure. Participants who demonstrate an impressive individual style that does not fulfill the competition brief will not succeed, no matter how delicious their serve is. Shervene Shahbazkhani, Bacardi Rum UK brand ambassador who mentored UK entrants in this year’s Bacardi Legacy, says: “Understanding the purpose of our competition is essential. We are a white rum cocktail competition and we want the cocktails created to showcase the spirit. Bartenders must know the product their cocktail is supposed to cater to.” Hamilton-Mudge adds: “Some participants enter with an attitude which says ‘well this is my style, take it or leave it’, but they would not behave that way to a customer. In this industry, we are always fulfilling a brief of some description. We are always trying to find the best answer for whatever, or whoever, we are serving.”
In a highly competitive environment, it can be difficult for cocktail competition entrants to truly make a lasting impression. Rusty Cerven, senior mixologist at The Connaught Bar and this year’s winner of Bols Around the World, says: “One of the main things to remember is that the drink has to be different. For Bols Around the World, I waited until the last minute to submit my recipe so that I could look and see what everyone else was planning. This way I found that punch would be a niche recipe. You have to be original and have some ideology behind your drink; otherwise you will inevitably fade into the background.”