“Are you ready?”
That’s the question asked of each hopeful who steps behind the bar at VYNL, at the New York regional showdown for Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender (MIB) competition. Luis Hernandez of Seamstress reaches for the ISI canister that will dispense a celery foam for his drink and crisply nods his assent. The timer begins the countdown.
Cocktail competitions have come a long way from what they were just a few years ago—the scope, style, and sheer number of contests have all changed dramatically.
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For bartenders, the allure of these competitions is obvious: A win can mean prize money, publicity for themselves and their bar, and travel opportunities if the competition is held in an exotic locale. More importantly, competitions can further a career, possibly providing a lucrative consulting contract with a liquor brand or leading to other long-term ventures.
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“For bartenders, there’s a lot of us and not everyone gets to shine,” said Hernandez, speaking the day before the MIB regionals. “It’s a way to put ourselves out there and get more recognition.” In this case, the winner is flown to London to compete against 11 other bartenders for a shot at the North American title. The winner scores a spot as GQ’s Bartender in Residence and collaborates with the men’s magazine on a series of cocktail videos throughout the year, in addition to receiving a $10,000 stipend.
The Brands’ POV
Cocktail contests have been around for centuries. The first one chronicled was in 1869 in New Orleans and was won by cocktail legend Harry Johnson; there’s even a cocktail contest that has been hosted sporadically to commemorate the event.
But the cocktail competition as we know it today started with a specific goal in mind: Liquor companies wanted to encourage bartenders to use their products and create cocktail recipes that showcased their brand. It was a goal that accelerated in the 1990s and early 2000s with the advent of cocktail menus at bars. At the same time, the rise of the Food Network (founded in 1993) and “Iron Chef” culture (based on the televised cooking competition that debuted in the U.S. in 2005) also helped whet the appetite for the live-action drama of cocktail contests.
“There are so many cocktail competitions now,” says Gary Hayward, North America brand ambassador for Bombay Gins. “Every company that comes out with a new spirit—their primary goal from the start is cocktail competitions.”
Compared with the scene 10 years ago, there are many more competition opportunities available—and a greater diversity of contests. Along with the growth of bartending as a career track, there are more bartenders than ever to fill out these events. MIB, for example, reports that the number of participants has grown 10 to 15 percent year after year.
But good luck getting a handle on the return on investment received by the brands that organize these events.
“Like social media, it’s hard to quantify,” Hayward concedes. “We look at it from an advocacy standpoint. Bartenders go through it, go on to our regionals, finals, et cetera, and go on to be our brand ambassadors.” While the competition is bucketed with marketing, PR, and sales, he notes, “it’s slightly different” from them. “It’s a long-term plan,” he concludes. “We see it as building the industry. We just want to be at the heart of cocktail culture going forward.”
Certainly, bartenders say they feel more personally invested in brands that host these events. “These competitions give the brands a face other than the brand ambassadors,” explains Kayla Hasbrook, head bartender at ABC Cocina and a frequent contestant (and winner) in cocktail events. “[They show] the community that someone is willing to work with them—with a delicious outcome: the cocktail.” She adds that bartenders who enter these competitions are more likely to carry the brand behind the bar “because they’ll want to prep with it and do R&D with it.”
The largest brands are typically the ones that sponsor these events, since they have the budget to invest in organizing and publicizing them—and they can offer the bigger prizes. However, Hasbrook says she has noticed an increasing number of smaller brands getting involved with competitions, too.
Cocktail competitions also provide a more modern approach to selling to fickle bartenders and consumers, says Charles Joly, a triple threat who was a bartender at Chicago’s The Aviary, is the current owner of the Crafthouse Cocktails brand, and was the 2014 Global Bartending Champion of Diageo’s World Class competition.
“It’s a big-picture view, compared to the old view of just case numbers,” says Joly, who explains that the old way of selling isn’t the way that bartenders want to be sold to anymore. “We don’t want things shoved down our throats. We are all looking for real stories, authentic experiences—[just] as guests are when they come to our bars. If I fall in love with a brand I was introduced to through a cocktail competition, I’ll want to use it when I write my cocktail menu. I’ll have a story because I visited the distillery. I’ll want to reach for that bottle.” That relationship building may take a while, but Joly says that “the cases will follow.”
Bringing the Flash
In addition to the sheer number of competitions, the scope of this sector has widened considerably. These days, it seems as if there’s something for every type of bartender. In addition to the “big three” contests (according to bartenders, those are the Diageo World Class, Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender, and Bacardi Legacy), competitions abound at the local level, whether hosted by brands, bars, or an organization like the United States Bartenders’ Guild.
Some competitions are recipe-driven, with judges or popular votes deciding on a “best” drink (usually one that incorporates the sponsoring brand); others are adrenaline-packed speed events, such as the annual women-only Speed Rack; still others are elaborate, multiday affairs that judge on drink-making skills, industry knowledge, service aspects, and more. Joly describes the latter as “a bartending competition, not just a cocktail competition—[it’s] a more refined, complete competition as opposed to solely [being about] the liquid in the glass.”
A growing number of competitions now emphasize a charitable or social component as part of the event. For example, Speed Rack has raised over a half-million dollars to benefit breast cancer research charities, while the Stoli Key West Cocktail Classic, an LGBT-focused bartender competition held in June, offered a $12,500 prize for the winner, to be divided between a Key West charity and the winner’s charity of choice.
Education is also being incorporated. Some competitions offer options like seminars, workshops, and distillery visits. Says Joly, “More brands understand that they are investing in the community, investing in bartenders, getting consumers involved in what a bartending experience can be.”
Hayward, who has been judging the MIB for nine years of its 11-year run, also notes that the focus has shifted from home-friendly drink recipes to excitement-generating, highly visual showpieces—it’s Instagram’s world, after all. “When I started, the majority of the cocktail contests were about, We want a cocktail we can use for above-the-line adverts, or print ads, or consumer take-home menus,” he recalls. “Nowadays the competitions have fewer boundaries,” meaning that there are fewer restrictions, like the number of ingredients that might be used. “It’s about pushing the artistic, the creative. We don’t look at it as something to make at home.”
One look at the props brought out for the MIB 2017 New York regionals underscores that showy aesthetic: the high-domed glass cloche that releases an instant-smoked drink with a dramatic flourish; a picnic basket with checked tablecloth, hiding drink ingredients but also a boxed “snack” for the judges; the elaborate mise-en-place tray that holds freshly shucked oysters and a variety of seaweed to garnish a martini-style drink; Hernandez’s ISI charger; and glass bottles filled with colorful but mysterious tinctures.
In the end, Hernandez walks away with the regional title for his Misdirection cocktail, made with Bombay Sapphire gin, celery syrup, and lemon. The coupe glass filled with sea foam–green liquid is crowned with celery foam and a spritz of coriander-seed tincture.
All that practice, all that adrenalin, all that getting ready. No wonder Hernandez—now London-bound for the MIB finals—likens cocktail competitions to the Super Bowl: “You have one shot,” he says. “You have a good game, and you’re in.”
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Kara Newman reviews spirits for Wine Enthusiast magazine and is the author of Shake. Stir. Sip., Nightcap, and Cocktails with a Twist (Chronicle Books).