How to win a cocktail competition
There are winners, there are losers and there are people that have not yet learned how to win - Les Brown
Cocktail competitions have become serious business these days. Seemingly every liquor brand under the sun is regaling bartenders with promises of, if not instant fame and fortune, a visit to the distillery where their ambrosial nectar is made in return for a few minutes of cocktail magic and a heap of PR.
I won a few small scale national competitions when I was bartending in New Zealand but it is the insight I gained from a coveted position managing the competition bars at the last two Diageo Reserve World Class Global Finals that I want to share with you. I've had the privilege to watch some of the best competition bartenders from Tim Philips to Erik Lorincz strut their stuff as well as learn from the old, but young at heart, masters Dale Degroff and Gary 'Gaz' Regan.
Some bright spark once penned the wise words 'Fail to prepare and prepare to fail' which rings true with any sort of serious competitive activity.
Your drinks should be perfected long before you set foot behind the competition bar. Practise with friends, colleagues, peers and guests. Make sure you know your drinks and your routine inside out. Study the rules, time yourself, add an extra minute and make sure you're well within the set time. If you're comfortable enough with it, video your routine and watch it back. What would you score yourself?
Before you depart, write lists. Checklist your ingredients, your equipment and your outfit. Don't rely on anyone for anything as this can only set you up for failure. Take everything you need from shakers and glassware to coasters and tasting straws. Try and take the exact ingredients where possible, immigration laws permitting, as regional differences can have a huge impact on your drink.
Pen a script. Don't try and learn it by heart but be so familiar with its content that you would remember it if you were shaken awake at 10am on a Sunday morning.
Knowledge is key
This one goes without saying but you'd be surprised how many bartenders stumble with incorrect facts about brands or a panicked look when a judge asks them to name Carl Nolet Snr's shoe size.
Make sure you know all the key facts about the sponsor brand. They are the ones funding your trip to Guatemala after all. Also try and find some unusual facts that you could use to weave into your presentation. Perhaps, in the course of unearthing the history of the Tuscan juniper farms that supply Tanqueray, you'll find inspiration for that final key part of your presentation.
Find out as much as you can about the judges. Did you know, for example, that Gary Regan will deduct points for double straining a stirred drink as he deems it unnecessary though he may add points for stirring with your finger. Ueno-San is a master of technique and demands the highest standards of service.
Let’s face it, cocktail competitions are intensely stressful and we can trip up in such high pressure situations. Visualising routines and knowing your cocktail, brand history and story like the back of your hand will all help the show run flawlessly but a little practicality can work wonders too.
The way you set up the bar for your routine is key. Line up your ingredients on the right (or left) hand side of the bar top, labels facing forward, in the order you plan to use them. As you work through your drink, pick up each bottle, use it and then place it on the opposite side of the bar. Not only will your thoughtful set-up impress the judges, if you have a panic attack and forget where you are, a quick glance at the bottles on the bar top should allow you to recover.
Same goes for the equipment you plan to use. Draw a diagram beforehand to make sure your kit is within easy reach, in order, and most vitally, stocked with everything you need. Bartending trainer, writer and Diageo Reserve World Class judge Steve Olsen will spot you fumbling around trying to find your jigger from the other side of the world.
What's your hook?
You need to stand out from the crowd. Some of the notable personalities from Diageo Reserve World Class over the years are Dennis Zoppi (Italy) who moves with a balletic grace, Stephon Scott (Trinidad) with that laid back Barbados accent, Ricky Gomez (USA) is arguably the most charming man you will ever meet and Kae Yin brings a fusion of Japanese and Western styles that only Taiwanese bartenders seem to have mastered.
Whether its related to your heritage, preferred style or something that you’re skilled at outside the bar, you need to bring as much 'wow' as you can. Watch Tim Philips' Reincarnation Flip here and see how he brings magic, sleight of hand and a little bit of magician’s wool to leave the judges in a state of open mouthed wonderment.
Also your personality has to come shining through so you'll need to turn up the dial but at the same time, make sure nobody thinks you’re faking it. And remember to smile. Especially if Angus Winchester, global ambassador for Tanqueray, is judging.
Everyone loves a story
We all love a good story. It's why books, cinemas, conversation, television and radio exist.
At last year’s Diageo Reserve World Class Global Final in Rio, Tim Philips told the story of a magical chicken that instructed him on his Market Challenge cocktail, the ......... Chicken Sour. It was, of course, complete nonsense and genius rolled into one. The audience and judges were enthralled, entertained and intrigued by Tim's tall tale which just added to the brilliance of his performance. Wrap a story around the creation of your drink, fiction or fact, turn your routine into performance art and you'll reap the rewards.
Pimp yourself and your drink
It is fair to say that cocktail competitions have reached such heady levels that simply turning up with some basic martini glasses, a bargain basement bar kit, lime wheel garnish and dirty t-shirt just isn't going to cut it.
Vintage and custom made equipment and glassware are common. Tailored suits, waistcoats or dresses, the order of the day. Garnishes that stimulate all the senses yet are playful and understated are standard fare. All the better if you’re able to tie everything back to the story of your drink.
Bring your own personal style to play. Be expressive and true to yourself.
Apart from impressing the judges with your creative skill, flawless drinks and witty banter, it's also important to ensure you don't lose any points for sloppy hygiene and general cleanliness. Sometimes, a single point lost is the difference between winning and losing. Watch a Japanese bartender in action for a perfect example. Be seen to be clean, wipe up spills along the way, don't pick your nose or scratch you nether regions and keep a cleaning cloth close at all times.
Keep calm and enjoy
The most important piece of advice I have is to keep calm, smile and enjoy the experience. Our wonderful industry is filled with amazing like-minded people who will only celebrate your successes and hug you if things go wrong.
Competitions are about pushing your boundaries and doing things you'd never be able to do behind the bar on a busy weekend night, so don't take it too seriously.
After all, if we can't enjoy drinking (responsibly of course!), then what's the point?
By Tim Etherington-Judge, Reserve Brand Ambassador: Emerging Markets and Bulleit Frontier Whiskey. International bon vivant, cocktail geek, vegetarian and self-confessed tree hugger