Cocktail comps are probably one of the most divisive topics of our industry. From those who love them and cherish a chance to get their name and drink prowess out there to the masses, to the dark corners of cocktail dives bars filled with those decrying the fact it doesn’t test “real” bartending.
Alongside all that time bartenders spend on these competitions sits the pots of cash the brands flash around. For well over a decade it seemed to be something of a status symbol if a brand or portfolio had pockets deep enough to host a competition, and from there the prize money and experiences those participating got to enjoy were the metaphorical dick flop that showed just how deep those pockets went.
Quiet rumours say that all this is about to change and the penny-pinchers are about to draw a fat line through that row on the budget spreadsheet, and yet tangible signs ($USD15K prize money for the Heaven Hill Comp anyone?!?) show everything but!
Frankly though, that not why we’re here and so if you fancy a good ol’ gossip about whether such and such comp was rigged cos the bartender walks the judges second cousins dog twice a month, kindly jog on.
We decided to write this article to share some insight on what we’ve experienced and learnt over the last few years, as we’ve had the chance to attend, participate and judge a solid number of competitions. We’re sharing all this in the hope brands can look at what others are doing with an eye to improve their own operation, bartenders can see what the global scene has to offer and understand that still the most important thing they can do is READ THE FUCKING SCORE SHEET & FOCUS WHERE THE POINTS ARE! We’re also going to stare into our crystal ball and wax lyrical about what the future of these wonderful events might hold for our small slice of the hospo game.
This is a stupidly long read. Like ‘my god shut up and get to the point’ (spoiler: there isn’t really one) kind of length, so we’re breaking it down and releasing it in sections.
That said, we certainly haven’t been to every comp around and so some details are from interviews and chats with our pals.
99% is focused on comps with a global final, simply so this can be relevant to as many as possible
The bulk is made up of commentary on comps from “the big 3”, this is mostly a reflection of where innovation and unique approaches are occuring as well as a potential sign of how those deep pockets allow for greater risk taking
As always, this is a live document so if we need to amend or add anything, just get at us.
The most obvious addition of any round to a comp, the challenge round is oft-designed to be a pressure cooker style, think on your feet and show us what you’ve got.
Market Challenges have become hugely popular and rightfully so, as we continue to get whisked around the world, the chance for bartenders to interact with what is local and seasonal should never be overlooked. Having a local tour guide however is goddamn must, as letting a bunch of bartenders, run wild in a foreign market with some of cash is just straight up planning for failure. Even better, roll like Havana Club Grand Prix did and bring in someone with expertise to give a full seminar on local produce so the bartenders really know what's up. We are curious creatures by nature, so there is real value in feeding that curiosity when taking bartenders abroad and letting them get to know another culture through its produce.
Speaking of failure, are we done with mystery box challenges yet?! Here’s the issue. The less time to prepare means a significant drop is the quality of what drinks are going to be presented. If you fancy a partially curdled flip containing soy vinegar with your brand, then fill your boots. However the reality is most brands are conducting comps with a hope to see the spirit championed, not spat on. So maybe spare your master distiller the pain of seeing what insults bartenders manage to put in a glass with 5 minutes planning and stick to something more on brand. Word up to World Class Global on this who have turned this on it’s head for a positive, where the mystery is not your ingredients, but the customers you’re serving. A nice twist and given the advance prep you get of up to 5 possible guests, also a good way to ensure its still a challenge full of (hopefully) passable drinks.
HOW FUCKING GREAT IS SPEED?! Speed Challenges that is. Seriously these are never not a shitload of nail biting, hooting and hollering fun that can really help break up the otherwise dull af drone of hearing 30 bartenders talk about the same brand chat. Those insanely inspiring women of Speed Rack have made the speed competition a thing of skill, quality drinks, prowess and career development, and seeing how that in turn has trickled down into more competitions is really a testament to how cocktail comps can be for “real bartending”. In fact, the two of us owe Speed Rack for making sure we first crossed paths so extra high fives to those babes Ivy & Lynette!
One thing that has seen a down turn of late has been comps that require the competitor to promote their drink. Arguably stemming from the global success Bacardi Legacy (which notably did not mention a city for a 2019 competition at it’s finals this year…) brought bartenders, 5 years ago many a comp required us to get on the ol’ FB and spruik the shit out of ourselves. Whilst this format remain integral to Legacy, and as one of the authors of this article can attest, when done right/uniquely can be a real game changer for your career, thankfully this idea as simply a “promotional challenge” has dropped by the wayside for most other comps.
A special mention on the challenge front. Absolut Invite run their competition as two person team comp, with one specific challenge being the single best round we’ve seen of any comp, anywhere. As a competitive team, you walk into a room with two fully set stations divided by a curtain, you’re given 3 drinks (from the classic Absolut Cocktail portfolio, an Absolut Cosmo, Martini & Sour were this years) to make in 6 minutes, and at the end must right down your specs. For this it’s about how well your trained and how tight you both work. On Saturday night the same person could easily place that order with two different bartenders, and really what makes a bars long term success is its consistency. It’s so much fun, emulates the exact pressure cooker tension of typical service, and test a much maligned aspect of the trade, know your house specs!
In a few days we'll drop the second part looking at new formats of competition and some insight from the judges side of things....