Drinking a cocktail is an inherently sensory experience. Taste, sight, and smell are all critical to fully appreciating a drink. Or are they?
Some spirits brands are taking their quest to discover the world’s best new cocktails to a counterintuitive realm—online. Whether the goal is to reduce their brand’s carbon footprint, level the playing field for themselves and participating bartenders, or simplify the logistics of competitions on a global scale, brands have different reasons for switching to the digital format. SevenFifty Daily spoke with representatives from three spirits brands—as well as Tales of the Cocktail—about their motivations for transferring their version of the traditional live, in-person competition either partly or totally online.
Richard Betts, MS, the founder of Sombra Mezcal, which recently announced Sombra’s Sustainable Virtual Cocktail Competition, an online-only contest in partnership with Trash Tiki zero-waste advocates Kelsey Ramage and Iain Griffiths, says, “the [virtual] competition came about as a natural extension of our commitment to the environment. The carbon ‘cost’ of flying contestants thousands of miles seemed at odds with our sustainability commitment.”
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Betts adds that he hopes the virtual aspect of the competition will “open up a wider dialogue about sustainability and empower bartenders to fully embrace eco-friendly practices, like transforming citrus juice and rinds into cocktail shrubs and vinegars and utilizing fruit pits as the base for new cocktail ingredients.” Entries for the competition are being accepted through August 22. Contestants will be judged partially on their ability to incorporate at least two eco-friendly ingredients along with a minimum of 1 ounce of Sombra Mezcal into their recipes.
For other brands, going digital is a way to manage the volume of contest entries and ensure an equal playing field. Dickie Cullimore, the global brand ambassador for Bacardi, says the brand hosts the preliminary round of its popular Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition online due to the “sheer size” of the contest, which attracts 10,000 applicants from nearly 40 countries. Additionally, given that fewer than half of the competition’s entrants use English as a first language, Cullimore says the online component gives contestants an “opportunity to compete in the first round in their native language.” In May, Eric van Beek from the Netherlands was named the 2018 Legacy competition winner.
According to Alex Smith, the director of operations for Tales of the Cocktail, the conference’s eponymous cocktail contest is conducted entirely online to “ensure that it’s open to anyone, anywhere in the world.” The 2018 competition had over 200 entrants, including applicants from such far-flung places as Ghana, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Taiwan. On June 1 the winner, Willy Estrada from Miami, was announced; his Spiced Nashi became Tales’ official cocktail of the year. Estrada will be honored at the conference’s kick-off event on July 17.
The Internet can also be an equalizer for lesser known brands that are trying to increase awareness and attract quality talent to their contests, says Joe Heron, the co-owner of Copper & Kings, a brandy distillery in Louisville, Kentucky, that developed and sponsors the MixT&pe cocktail competition, in which contestants submit an original drink recipe that’s based on their favorite song and uses a Copper & Kings brandy as the base spirit. “For a small company like ours with fewer resources, it’s just not possible to host a physical semifinal in every city,” Heron says. “The Web-based aspect gives us the broadest reach possible,” as evidenced by the 400 entries received from more than 24 states for this year’s contest.
But how do you judge a drink when someone isn’t physically there to prepare or serve it?
Ramage and Griffiths plan to make every cocktail submitted to Sombra’s Sustainable Virtual Cocktail Competition, but other competition hosts say that making and sampling every drink is impossible. They rely instead on the recipe composition, creativity, and submitted photos and videos to narrow down the number of contestants.
For example, the United States portion of Bacardi’s Legacy competition has two judging teams, each of which samples over 100 cocktails based on submitted recipes, while Legacy competition hopefuls from many other countries are judged simply on the basis of their online submissions. Cullimore says that while the lack of personal interaction with contestants is a drawback of the online preliminary process, it’s necessary to manage the large number of entries before the competition moves to its next phase.
For the Tales competition, Smith says the judges do make some of the drinks submitted but that contestants are primarily judged on their recipes, ingredients, and ability to creatively interpret the theme—this year it was to make a riff on the classic French 75.
MixT&pe’s initial entrants are judged on their ability to “physically manifest the music in glass,” as well as accompanying visuals and recipe components like creativity, balance, technical skills, and ingredients. Heron concedes that “the real-life physical version is much more sensorially compelling than it is online,” which is why the brand’s finals are held in person. This year’s finals will take place on July 13 at the Copper & Kings Distillery.
“But we don’t look at the online contest in an isolated way,” Heron says. “The Internet is a way for us to engage with our audience directly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Bartenders are very busy people who are engaged with many spirits companies. The Web is a leveler for us in terms of reach, both during the competition and beyond.”
Laura Scholz, a writer and editor based in Atlanta, has covered food, spirits, wellness, and travel for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Atlantan, Eater Atlanta, Liquor.com, Tales of the Cocktail, VinePair, and other publications. She is currently the fitness editor of Atlanta magazine. Follow her on Instagram @lbscholz.