How to win cocktail competitions! By: Nick Van Tiel


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How to Win Cocktail Competitions

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How to win cocktail competitions! By: Nick Van Tiel

  1. 1. HOW TO WIN COCKTAIL COMPETITIONS! SEMINAR OVERVIEW THE PANEL Have you ever wanted to know how to win cocktail competitions and influence (brand) people? Of course you have! Do you suffer from FOMO every time you see social media posts from your colleagues who have been lucky (or clever) enough to get themselves on an all-expenses-paid trip somewhere cool? We know you do, and today we are here to help. There is a pot of gold at the end of every brand’s rainbow these days, and we want to show you how to access it. Focusing on cocktail competitions specifically, this seminar and discussion will explore the evolution of the cocktail competition over the last few years and address some of the key areas where careers can be made or broken in a matter of minutes. Today you will hear from some of the most seasoned competitors and judges in the industry, who will recount their experiences and offer advice and tips to those looking to make it to the top. The esteemed panel will also discuss the purpose of a cocktail competition from a brand’s perspective, to give an insight into what a brand might be looking for when outlaying the time, energy and funding to put together such lavish and extravagant events as the drinks industry is currently experiencing, not to mention the insane prizes that are up for grabs. Finally, we will discuss the aftermath – what happens if you win ‘the best bartender of all time’? What does that actually do to your life, your reputation and your career? JOHN LERMAYER: Originally from New York, now based in Miami – John began his long career in fine dining and eventually made the transition to nightlife, most notably helming the drinks program at the revered Florida Room in Miami. John is a competition veteran and has entered and won a great number of competitions, including the 42 Below World Cup in 2004, Domaine de Canton Bartender of the year in 2009, the Hennessey Art of Mixing in 2010, the Bols Global Cocktail Challenge in 2011, and Bacardi Legacy in 2012 - to name a but a few.  Having also been an integral part of the judging panel in Bacardi Legacy and Diageo Wordlclass competitions - John is currently based at the Gale Hotel in Miami and is very soon opening a brand new project. JASON WILLIAMS: Jason has spent his long career opening some of the finest venues across Australia, and has also competed in several competitions over the years – winning Australian Bartender of the Year in 2010, as well as being crowned ALIA Bartender of the Year in 2006 and 2008. Jason has represented Australia on the world stage on numerous occasions, most recently winning the world title at the Global Beefeater 24 Bartender Competition last year. Jason is now the Group Bars Manager for leading Sydney operator The Keystone Group, managing extensive training, beverage and cocktail programs across 15 venues. JIM MEEHAN: Jim is as much a New York institution as his James Beard Award winning bar, PDT. Crowned American Bartender of the Year in 2009, Jim has helped shape the way the world drinks through his work as a bartender, bar owner, consultant, brand ambassador, spirits writer, and author. Jim has created some of the most famous and respected cocktails in the world and his bar, menu, and book are testament to the fact that he understands the process of creating cocktails that appeal to consumers, trade and brands. Jim has been involved in many competitions over the course of his career and will be giving us some unique insight into what the judges of cocktail competitions are looking for and how you can impress them. ALI DEDIANKO: Ali began her career in bartending back in 2002 and has tended bar in a number of NYC’s finest establishments. A solid contributor to the city’s bartending community, in 2010 she was urged to compete in the Belvedere Dream Job Competition, which she won. Her prize was a contract with Belvedere Vodka, traveling the world as Global Brand Ambassador. Now in her fourth year in the role, Ali has visited over 55 countries, tasted countless cocktails, and also been part of a number of different competitions. Ali is going to offer us some insight into her experience, and how that fateful competition has impacted her life and her career. NICK VAN TIEL: Over the past decade Nick has been involved in many cocktail competitions from an agency and brand perspective – from designing how the current model of Diageo Wordlcass is run to planning, executing, hosting and judging several competitions on behalf of a number of brands, including Beefeater and Plymouth gins which he has had the pleasure of representing over the last 4 years. Compiled and written by Nick van Tiel; From the combined wisdom and experience of Ali Dedianko, Jim Meehan, John Lermayer, and Jason Williams, and a touch of class from Jacob Briars. Special thanks to Beefeater gin who kindly sponsored this seminar!A seminar for Tales of the Cocktail 2014, New Orleans LA
  2. 2. THE EVOLUTION OF THE COCKTAIL COMPETITION BREAKING IT DOWN There is actually written evidence of a cocktail competition taking place in New Orleans in 1869 (Thank you Jacob Briars), and later in the 1880s the Police Gazette started to organize high profile contests in New York, which helped to publicize the craft of bartending. Back in less ancient times when Nick started bartending, back when muddling some strawberries and basil into a vodka cocktail was revolutionary – cocktail competitions were few and far between. Generally these were hosted by trade magazines and the only real prize on offer was the honor of having your recipe published for your peers to see in print, and possibly a free bottle of whatever brand sponsored the competition. Maybe even a photo with Raj Nagra. Although the cocktail competition had humble origins, soon, brands began to realize the power of the cocktail competition in terms of getting bartender’s creative juices flowing, and getting their products into the hands of the tastemakers – knowing that each new recipe had the power to become the next contemporary classic or a new benchmark in mixology. Brands also realized the potential for creating mini ambassadors through these competitions, having the ‘best of the best’ endorsing their products onstage at tradeshows, in print and on social media, and also engaging the winners of these competitions to travel and share their experiences with other up and coming competitors and influencers. Nowadays there is a veritable goldmine available to you and other members of the drinks industry! But as you will see as we start to explore the modern cocktail competition – it’s not all about winning. Often just being a part of some of these competitions is such an incredible experience in itself that the learning opportunities, the fun times, the new friendships, and the media exposure outweigh the actual prize itself. COCKTAIL COMPETITIONS COST A LOT OF MONEY. WHERE DOES ALL THIS MONEY GO? • Agency costs – designing and planning the format of the competition, as well as executing the events • PR and marketing – from magazine advertisements to printed flyers, from nicely designed emails to fancy websites to submit recipes – no expense is spared • Sales tools and POS material - for the sales and distributor teams to recruit entries • 3rd parties – often (especially in the US) cocktail competitions are actually illegal, unless they are run in conjunction with a 3rd party like the USBG or a trade media partner (Imbibe, etc) – and these 3rd parties obviously need to make a profit out of their involvement • Legal fees, especially in the US • Event productions costs – often for multiple regional semi-finals, followed by bigger and more expensive national finals, sometimes culminating in lavish week long international gatherings for the global final, where not only competitors but a mélange of drinks media and corporate hangers-on are also along for the ride • Prizes • Post event promotion and engagement SO WHAT IS THE POINT OF A COMPETITION? WHO BENEFITS? Brands Cocktail competitions tick the following boxes for a brand: • Gets bartenders working with, and being creative with the brand in question. The hope is that this will result in the spontaneous creation of the next ‘modern classic’ – a drink that will set the world ablaze with unrivaled passion for the brand in question • Depletions – on practicing the recipes, but also many competitions now require the cocktail in question to be featured on the menu for a set period of time, and now in some competitions even the amount of the cocktail sold can contribute to your success in that competition • Inspiration – Hopefully a new cocktail that inspires other bartenders to use that particular brand • Great PR - Shots of the best bartenders and most influential industry figures, endorsing said brand. These pictures then get used in all facets of media to promote the brand and future competitions • Ongoing endorsement – bartenders who have had a great experience with a particular competition are usually very loyal to that brand in the future WHO ELSE BENEFITS? The Bartender What do YOU get out of it? • Exposure – to media, your contemporaries, and potential future employers. Especially if you want to work for a brand. Someone who can create a delicious cocktail and present it eloquently in front of a crowd under pressure, while showing passion for the brand - is basically exactly what a brand looks for in an ambassador – even if you don’t win. • Inspiration – in terms of cocktail ideas and things you can take back to your bar • Practice for real life – being behind a busy bar is pretty much like being on stage • Make new friends and contacts – nothing builds character like a bit of stage pressure, and when you are in the weeds your fellow competitors are your new best friends. You would be surprised how supportive many competitors are of one another during competition, even when there is a massive prize at stake…. • The obvious stuff - Travel, prize money, recognition from your peers, babes, etc • Competitions are fun How to win cocktail competitions!
  3. 3. Entering a competition makes you a better bartender - whether it’s the camaraderie, the exchange of ideas with other bartenders you might not have met, or just learning to settle those nerves on game day. It all helps us become better at what we do on a daily basis, and that’s a great reason to take part in a competition no matter how big or small the prize at stake. Whether you win or lose, there is something for you to learn at every competition. Competitions do not often test how good a bartender you are, but they hopefully will make you a better bartender. The more you know and the more you learn the better you will be behind the bar and on stage in the next competition….. Ok so who else benefits from a competition? The Judges It’s hard work, but the judges also benefit through: • Awesome trips! • Great way to be involved without stakes of competing - you don’t have to worry about winning or losing • Great vantage point to see the most current trends and creativity right in front of you – you have the front row seat • Networking with other professionals outside the industry - such as fashion designers, artists, musicians, celebrities • Great brand relationships Venues Venues benefit greatly from cocktail competitions through: • Promotion of the venue, and also the cocktail lists and some of the drinks in particular • Brand support in terms of events, spends, and sponsorship opportunities • Industry relationships – deepen through involvement in industry events • Staffing - If a venue has a high quality of staff who are seen to be competing and winning at a high level, then that venue becomes a very desirable place to work • Inspires team mentality – especially if people are bouncing ideas of each other • Loyalty - venues who demonstrate loyalty by supporting their staff in competitions, gain that loyalty back in terms of staff retention • Inspires creativity amongst staff • Spokespeople - traveling bartenders are like a brand ambassador for the venue The Industry For all the above reasons, cocktail competitions are a great way of bringing the industry together. When you think about it, there are few other industries where people can win fantastic prizes and international acclaim for just being good at their jobs, so we are pretty lucky in that respect. Cocktail competitions are the furnace that lights the creativity in our industry. They are a great source of inspiration, of education, of camaraderie and in general are a very important component in helping our industry to grow and develop. When we say education, we are not of course just talking about teaching and learning from our fellow bartenders. Cocktail competitions are a fantastic vehicle for us all to educate the drinking public and inspire them to treat us more as creative talents instead of walking vending machines. Cocktail competitions can and do inspire consumers to seek out our bars and get excited about the cocktails that we make… HOW TO WIN… ACT I – GETTING INVOLVED Ok – so we sold you on the idea of competing. Now how do you get started and make sure that your submission trumps the hundreds of others that want the gold and glory as much as you do? Chose the right competition for you Not all competitions are created equal. Remember what we talked about in terms of what the brand gets out of it – if you don’t want your name attached to a certain brand, then maybe don’t enter their competition. That brand will get their money’s worth out of you if you win, and those google image searches don’t go away. Get involved This is something I try to instill in all our bartenders - I used to go in most comps as a younger bartender – if I had a good idea that is, and it’s something I recommend to our teams. Read the Rules This might be stating the obvious but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen bartenders overlook simple guidelines like the number of ingredients permitted, a restricted or required amount of alcohol, a style of drink, or ignoring the scoring structure. Read the judging criteria Do this to maximize points in each category. This is a clinical way of looking at comps but it is effective. You may think your drinks has a killer taste and finish but it may lose points for aroma or name, if you don’t address those things. This stuff is normally readily available – either online, or sometimes it is part of the ‘terms and conditions’ of entry. Often it is legally necessary for the brand or organizer to publish this stuff, so if you can’t find it ask the brand ambassador for it. Know the brand (and category) and pay it respect Research both, get excited about it and impart your enthusiasm onto the judges and/or audience Understand what the competition is about Worldclass is clearly looking for something different than Rematch Beeyatch. Work strictly within the brief and ‘get’ what the brand wants to see in your presentation and cocktail. Also, try to get an idea of what your other competitors might be doing. If the prize is a 3 month trip around the world or a car, then realize that some people will invest a lot of money into their efforts – especially if there is a video component or some unique promotional component. Are you prepared to also invest that kind of time, money and energy? Make this call before you start. How to win cocktail competitions! >> Breaking it down
  4. 4. Less is more Keep ingredients to a minimum. Figure out what you’re going for and try to pare the ingredients back to just what makes sense. Realize that often the brand paying for the contest is looking for a recipe that ideally they can promote to a wider audience, that might inspire the next tier down of bartenders. So using esoteric hard to find ingredients just for the sake of it can actually do you damage. Have a concept, a story Perhaps it’s a story, perhaps its inspiration from one part of the brand. Whatever it is, the cocktail and all its parts should tie in together. The ingredients, aroma, the name, garnish etc should all tie back to an original concept or story. I think your cocktail should be thought provoking - through your story, concept, unique ingredients or techniques. Don’t re-use an old recipe Don’t use the same drink you’ve used in another comp and simply swap out the spirit. We will know! Judging the Plymouth Gin competition a few years ago, we were sitting and going through submissions and could not believe the amount of recipes that were blatantly created for Hendricks Gin – in the end we binned anything that contained muddled cucumber, St Germain and Lavender syrup because it was obvious they just lazily switched out the brand in an old drink. Remember who is paying Don’t feature other brands heavily, remember which spirit is putting on the comp and make that the ‘hero.’ Learn the brand’s portfolio and if you do have to use another spirit in your drink, make sure it’s in their portfolio.   Make it personal Anyone can make a good cocktail and wear nice braces and a bow tie. Odds are there is something unique about the place you work and probably also something unique about the cocktail list – so play that to your advantage and make the drink your own. With the advent of social media it is becoming harder to stay individual as people often adopt things that they learn from across the other side of the world – like Japanese stirring and shaking techniques. Be time appropriate Think about when it is that you will be presenting your cocktail. Think season, time of day, what is the setting? If the global final is going to be on a cruise ship sailing the Med then you might not want to submit a hot whisky cocktail! Don’t write checks that your skills can’t cash I’ve made the mistake before of entering a competition last minute, making my drink sound amazing on paper and getting through to the next round without actually ever making the drink. Most competitions prohibit any change to your submitted recipe after the fact, so good luck figuring out how to make that sous-vide nori flake vermouth taste as good as you promised it would! Don’t leave entering until the last minute Submitting your entry at 11.58pm on the night the comp closes is risky. You could rush it and not get your message across or maybe the computer might crash etc. If you miss the competition deadline don’t take it out on the brand ambassador for not accepting your late entry. If 300 other people managed to get their entry in on time then its not fair to them to sneak yours in – rules are rules. ACT II – PRE-GAME TRAINING Congratulations! You made it through the rigorous submission process because you followed our golden rules for success. Now you have to deliver on all those things that you promised in your submission… Build your confidence and self-assess If you don’t think your drink will win, then it probably won’t. Rework your recipe and presentation until you find that magic formula that cannot fail. Make a checklist Check it twice. Write down EVERYTHING. Your recipe, all the steps, tools you will need, talking points. Give your presentation structure.  Save the celebrating until you win Don’t go get fucked up the night before. If there is $100,000 on the line, there is nothing amusing or admirable about you being a hung-over sack of shit and forgetting what you spent all that time practicing. You’ll waste a lot of peoples time and do damage to your reputation in the process. Prepare. Practice. Repeat. A good bartender is a prepared bartender – same goes for competitions. Practice your routine. Work on your timing. Rehearse your presentation at your bar. Get feedback from others and get comfortable. By the time you get up there on stage, you should be able to execute this drink like it’s the best selling drink on your menu.  Know your judges Are the judges authors of cocktail books? Are they bartenders’, chefs, or local newscasters? Try to understand who will be judging your performance, their understanding of our craft, and how you can favorably relate to them. Doing an awesome flair routine if your judges are mostly IBA Hotel bartenders is probably not going to get you far. Just like guests at your bar, your goal is to enhance the judges’ overall experience. This is also an opportunity to get creative and funny.  Get hold of the judges’ score sheets This is slightly different from the judging criteria we spoke about before – that was vague and generic and gave you a rough idea of what to submit. This is the real deal of how points are awarded. Generally, the judges will want to give you points – but in most cases they are restricted by a pre-formatted scoresheet, which clearly breaks down where they are allowed to give you points. There may be room for ‘bonus points’ for something that doesn’t neatly fit inside the grid, but that is likely only a maximum of 5 or 10% of the total score. So get hold of the scoresheet in advance if at all possible, and try to tailor your drink and performance to make sure the judges can award you all the points you deserve. A rookie mistake that I made several times in the early days was to focus too much on ‘wow’ factor and not enough on the things which the judges can actually award points for – some contestants are shocked when they get the biggest crowd reception but not the win – it all comes down to those points on the scoresheet! How to win cocktail competitions! >> How to win…
  5. 5. Cut and clean your fingernails No point fussing over that perfect bow-tie knot if the fingers that you use to touch peoples ice, straws and garnishes look disgusting. Get some sleep! It’s Science Yo! – Your brain can’t work without it! ACT III – YOU’RE UP, SON! Ok, so now you are at the point of no return. You’ve followed all the rules, you are prepared and you’ve practiced in the mirror and timed yourself, your Mum says it’s the best drink she’s ever tried – lets get it! One thing that is important to realize, particularly as those competition nerves start to kick in, is that the winner will not necessarily be the greatest bartender, the best performer, or the best cocktail - but a combination of all of those elements that appeal to the judges on the day. Get there early The more time you have to familiarize yourself with the bar / stage / setup and make sure you have everything you need, the better. Bring your own stuff Even if the organizers say that you don’t need to. They will only normally have basic, generic equipment and glassware and unless the rules prohibit it - you should plan to add a personal touch with your own glassware and equipment. It could mean that extra .25 of a mark that you need to win. Setup for success When you go on stage, or behind the bar, set everything up the way that you will use it. On stage, a worthy method, is to line up the products that you will use, in the order that you will use them on one side of the bar. Ideally they should be in full view of you and the judges, with all the labels pointing out toward the judges. As you use each ingredient, move it to the other side of the bar. That way you can tell at a glance if you have included all the ingredients, and where you are chronologically in terms of the recipe. This will help you if you get lost whilst explaining something to the judges or the audience. If you are allowed to premeasure ingredients like juice into small carafes, do that – it will save shaky hands when jiggering, and ensure your measurements are precise. Introduce yourself Set the scene; make sure people know who you are. Breathe. Bend (the knees). Drink (water). You are going to be nervous, fact. The bigger the competition, the more nervous you will be. Deal with it. Nothing exposes nerves like a 40cm bar spoon, so be mindful of your shakes. Refer to your notes and your practice. Dress to impress Dress nicely, as though you are showing up to work. The sloppy, just-rolled-out-of-bed look is not winning you any points. Also remember that your future employer or lover may be in the audience! Do not do multiple shots Getting drunk while competing is not a good look. Try not to dissect what other competitors are doing / not doing, just worry about your performance. Drink more water. REPRESENT! Realise you are representing the place you work, the city you work in, and in some cases even your country. That’s a lot of pressure, and you need to make sure that you do justice to the other people who fought for that spot and didn’t get it. Talk while you work Don’t leave awkward pauses while you concentrate on jiggering ingredients. Look at the judges not at what you’re doing. You should have practiced so much that your hands are on autopilot and you can concentrate on coolly impressing the judges. Also, listen while you work! Make room for the judges to ask you questions – because they will! Now is not the time for improvisation You practiced your drink and routine so stick to it. You might be able to think on your feet behind your own bar, but don’t make rash decisions under pressure. Having said that, realise that you may have to work through some unforseen issues – missing ingredients, different ice, you forgot your normal spoon etc – these things shouldn’t undo you and proving you can solve surprise problems is all part of the game! Be confident, but not cocky Imagine the judges are real customers in your bar and treat them accordingly. It’s the little things that count Attention to detail in comps is key. Small things like chilling martini glasses, using special ice tongs, only touching the middle part of the straw, cleaning any moisture from the outside of the glass. Tiny things that can get you tiny extra points, which is often the difference between first, and not first. Use the crowd If there are spectators – address them as you would people in your bar. If you include them, and make sure they are having a good time too, then everyone will – including you. Bring the right attitude Be a bartender. Smile. Relax. Understand why you are there and how many people helped you get there. Honor them, honor the craft. Remain humble and remember the fact that a brand is investing in the competition to help move our craft forward. Honor them appropriately.  Do your research! Interesting facts about the brand that can’t be found easily online are always impressive. However - don’t bombard people with facts - keep it engaging and concise. Make sure your facts are correct. There are so many times I’ve had bartenders tell me incorrect information about the brand they are presenting, and given that there will normally be a brand ambassador or brand manager on the judging panel, you need to know your stuff! Don’t make excuses Telling the judges that you didn’t have time to prepare, so you’re just ‘winging it’ is not a good idea. This seems to be a very common mistake that people make when they feel under pressure in front of people they look up to. If you are winging it – don’t let on – maybe no-one will notice!! How to win cocktail competitions! >> How to win…
  6. 6. Slow Down Do not rush through your drink. Do not try to win the competition in the first 90 seconds. Use all the time allocated, speak at pace and get all your points across. Remember the entire time you go you are EARNING points, not losing. Remember the judges.  BUT - be mindful of any time limits If you have 5 minutes to present and you take 10, you are being disrespectful to the other competitors and you will usually be marked down or even disqualified.  Don’t get tripped up by the small stuff Everyone makes mistakes and the competition will likely go by in a blur. Don’t give up hope if you make one or two small mistakes – odds are no one will notice, as no one else has seen your presentation before. People can, and have won competitions when they think they’ve made a load of mistakes. Have fun!! It seems clichéd to say, but have fun! We aren’t saving lives here, we’re basically selling a good time, so don’t take yourself too seriously.  Relish the moment of getting in front of your peers and doing what you love doing. It’s the same as being behind your regular bar – if you are having fun and visibly enjoying yourself, then everyone else is too. And you want the judges to be having a blast! Remember, You’ve already won It may sound cliché, but the real prize is in the experience and relationships you will make and keep. Trust me. X-Factor Witness any cocktail competition go down and it is often pretty obvious by the end who is the clear winner. And almost always that competitor either has some mysterious star quality or they have pulled out some secret move that no-one else thought of, and no one expected... ACT IV – YOU WON!! Or you maybe you didn’t, but so what? Every cocktail competition will teach you something and make you a better bartender, and get you closer to winning the next one. Take a deep breath Whether you won or not, you’ve probably been holding your breath for a long time, but relax – its over. Be Gracious In victory and defeat. Nobody likes a sore loser - everyone hates a sarcastic winner. Neither will help you grow as a bartender.  You shouldn’t be acting Sometimes people present or compete with a very different persona than they do in normal life. People will observe you in every aspect of the competition, from before you arrive until long after you leave (Social media etc) – perhaps they may even visit your bar sneakily before the comp – so make sure you are consistent with your approach, and behavior. Never complain A surprising amount of people that don’t win competitions feel the need to moan about them afterwards or pick holes in the format or try to undermine the judges decision in some way. Honestly, it just makes you look like a petty loser and you never know who might be listening. However, if there is a polite way to ask the judges for feedback on what you could have done better, that is always a good way to improve for the next one. Keep in touch With your fellow competitors. Strong relationships are forged in the heat of battle and often your fellow competitors are the best their industry has to offer, wherever they are from. People travel so much these days; it always helps to know the best bartender in town when you are visiting! Say thank you! Do the brand or organisation that put the event on a solid, and make sure you give them some props if you get to make an acceptance speech. Remember there are lot of people who worked very hard to facilitate your amazing experience so make sure they feel the love – at the event and afterwards as well. Especially when it comes to doing your ordering for the bar! How to win cocktail competitions! >> How to win… WRAP UP Cocktail competitions truly are a great thing for our industry. Aside from being fun, challenging, and a great way to make some extra bucks or get onto a cool trip – they really do offer you as a bartender or bar owner a world of opportunity. And what do you have to do in return? Just get involved. Brands will only continue to support us in this way and keep investing their marketing dollars in these great initiatives if you guys make the effort to get involved and make it worthwhile for them. If you didn’t already, you now have all the tools and wisdom to take it to the limit, and beyond. So when you are sailing away in the sunset with that beautiful lady by your side, remember us, and pour a lil out for your homies who put you on that path to success.