How to win cocktail competitions! By: Nick Van Tiel
HOW TO WIN
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
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?
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
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 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 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
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
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, Liquor.com etc) – and these 3rd
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
• Post event promotion and engagement
SO WHAT IS THE POINT OF A COMPETITION?
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?
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
• 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!
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
Ok so who else benefits from a competition?
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
• Networking with other professionals outside the industry
- such as fashion designers, artists, musicians, celebrities
• Great brand relationships
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
• Industry relationships – deepen through involvement in
• 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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…
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
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,
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
Be confident, but not cocky
Imagine the judges are real customers in your bar and treat
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
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…
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
How to win cocktail competitions! >> How to win…
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
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