Cocktail competitions: The pros and cons5th February, 2014 by Dan Miles
When I die, I’ve decided not to leave my fortune to Battersea Dogs Home, or the Tamar Valley Donkey Park (where you can also feed goats, sheep and chickens.) I have decided instead to leave my combined wealth, whatever it may be, to set up a cocktail competition.
It will be a delight, with points for drinks, chat, cleaning the bar at the end of the night, and removing difficult customers successfully.
You see I love cocktail competitions, I’ve entered many and won a few, and I would recommend every bartender to enter at least one during their careers. But there are pros and cons to them.
First the pro’s. The most simple one is it’s a syrupy balm for the remarkably healthy and absorbent ego that most bartenders possess. My niece has a grade eight in the French Horn, she can prove how good she is with a piece of paper, though I still maintain it’s a ridiculous instrument. Bartending has no set ranking system, but the bragging rights to a competition win can really set you apart and help you build a reputation.
Next, they are a real test of practical skills relevant to your work. Nearly all competitions are based around a pre-designed signature drink which displays personal creativity and vision. However Diageo’s World Class, which has to be considered the one to win at the moment, bases elements of its scoring on your ability to work with what you’re given (on the spot creativity), ability to interact with the judges (chat with the customer) and, not to be underestimated, your ability to come up with a great name (marketability). This last part is one of the dark arts of the industry and not everyone has Gareth Evans from The Blind Pig’s ability to take an octopus-ink Bloody Mary and come up with Squid Vicious. Last but by no means least of course is that they are a truly ridiculous amount of fun.
Now the cons. You have to accept that they are not exactly altruistic. On arriving in New Zealand for the 42 Below Cocktail World Cup I was presented with a pass to hang around my neck that read “I am one of 42Below’s hand picked marketing puppets recruited to shamelessly peddle our internationally unknown brand of vodka.” Funny as it is there is an awful lot of truth to it. Most cocktail competitions are designed and funded by brands to sell product at the end of the day. They achieve this through publicity and making bartenders love them. They know better than anyone that nothing sells a product like a bartender who believes in it, and an all expenses paid trip to Mauritius can sure help you believe in it.
Unfortunately there are brands out there who take it too far, basing plentiful criteria and unseemly emphasis on how much of their product you already sell, or how much more you can sell during the run up to the competition. When this happens it’s no longer the ability to create that’s at the heart of the matter, but the ability to sell and that cheapens it in my opinion, and spoils the magic.
So wouldn’t a truly and utterly impartial cocktail competition be nice? Perhaps then we could find out once and for all who truly is the best. Which is why when I die you’re all invited to enter mine and may the best bartender win.