Posted on | April 23, 2014
Written by | Robert Haynes-Peterson
Lucky me: This spring, I judged a Calvados cocktail competition, and turned down two other judging opportunities in the same month. While I am not about to complain, the overlap calls for a reality check. There are mixology competitions going on almost every week (if not every day) somewhere around the world. What does the industry get out of these increasingly high-profile extravaganzas?
The concept of a dozen or hundreds of bartenders competing, often to raucous crowds and music, for the chance at a cash prize, a trip to a distillery or a brand ambassadorship has exploded over the past few years to the point of ubiquity.
This is the third year for the USBG World Class contest, sponsored by Diageo. The national finals take place in New York City this year, following five regional competitions. Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender contest has been going on for seven years. Bacardi’s Global Legacy contest (the finals are scheduled to take place in mid-May) for five years. Most of the smaller brands have been hosting contests for only a year or two.
Contest concepts range from the serious to the charitable to over-the-top. For the 2014 Calvados competition, it was relatively sedate set-up at Manhattan’s Barclay Bar & Grill which boasts NYC’s only Calvados bar (with almost 100 options). Contestants came up and crafted their drink, while presenting its backstory. By contrast, the 42 Below Vodka World Cup in 2012 was notorious for its ancillary activities—taking contestants and journalists bungee jumping and driving them about in bright pink Hummers. And why not—the finals took place in New Zealand.
Flamboyant final rounds are becoming a byproduct of the proliferation, which organizers can defend as a natural extension of the fact that competitions can take nearly a year from regional start to national or global finish. “It’s a massive amount of work,” says Bombay Sapphire brand ambassador Raj Nagra.
So why stage one of these beasts in the first place? Attention is always at the core. “For the brand, the concept is [to show] you’re indispensible,” says Lynn House, national brand ambassador for Pama pomegranate liqueur. “It elevates the perception of it as an ingredient behind the bar.” Pama wrapped its first national competition in March at Play, a bar inside the Museum of Sex in New York.
Getting recognized in a crowded field is a significant motivator for small and new brands, agrees Alberto Vollmer, CEO of Venezuela-based rum Santa Teresa. “It’s important for us that bartenders come to learn about the brand,” he notes. “Plus, Venezuela doesn’t have the best reputation right now, and we’d like to help improve that.” It didn’t hurt to have Venezuelan native Gabriela Isler, aka Miss Universe 2012, on hand in New York to watch. The winner of the brand’s first “Sip a Nightcap” competition received a trip to the distillery.
For the giants, competitions can be a way to remind bartenders in an increasingly craft-driven world that more established brands are strong contenders for quality cocktails. “It gives us the opportunity to present our entire portfolio,” says Mark Schulte, Senior VP of marketing for Diageo. Think Johnny Walker, Tanqueray, Don Julio, Cîroc and more. “We can expose them to bartenders in a way that would take much longer if we went door to door,” he adds. Diageo and USBG hold seminars “training” about 1,000 bartenders each year for the contest; that’s some prime brand exposure.
Brown-Forman has sponsored the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience for five years, with regional competitions culminating in Manhattan, naturally. At the 2013 finals, held in partnership with Esquire magazine and attended by a flock of enthusiastic consumers, Miami-based Virginia King took home the coveted title of Master of the Manhattan. But as Brown-Forman Master Distiller Chris Morris notes, this competition also represents a way to strategically cast a net more widely over the nation’s cocktail consciousness, augmenting their well-established prominence in the Mint Julep via the Kentucky Derby and the Old Fashioned via the Belmont Stakes.
The contests certainly boost the career paths of the winners. The bio for Moët-Hennessy’s UK brand ambassador Claire Smith notes her having won the UK’s largest competition, Battle of the Giants, back in 2001. Christian Sanders, the winner of the 2013 Most Imaginative Bartender contest, says, “I own a bar [Evelyn Drinkery in NYC] that was almost shut down due to Hurricane Sandy. So to get exposure and make relationships and contacts is very important.” Losers, in a way, are winners, too, Sanders notes: “Sometimes it’s the road trips that convince me. It’s a good way to get out of town.”
Behind The Curtain
Things don’t always go so swimmingly. One bartender related the tale of a competitor being inadvertently shown an in-house email where it was declared he would receive second place to the “more attractive” first place winner (who just happened to be Number Two’s girlfriend), despite his receiving the higher score. Not cool. “Contests can sometimes be overproduced, says House. “I was in one where they picked us up in limos and tried dazzle us. But when we got there, we were literally held on premise for 12 hours, with no food. Then we were essentially told at the last minute we were making our cocktails for 500 people.”
To help avoid accusations of favoritism or sloppy judging, many companies have partnered with the U.S. Bartender’s Guild to set up rules and supervise competitions. I’m very vocal when I think there are issues in a competition,” says current USBGNY President Pamela Wiznitzer. “I’ll call them on their [crap].”
Though brand sponsorship is often crucial, the focus isn’t always on the juice in the glass. Speed Rack, begun three years ago as a grassroots effort and now in eight cities, celebrates female craft bartenders in a high-speed competition, raising funds and awareness to battle breast cancer. “We like to think of it as ‘You’re in the weeds and Julie Reiner, Audrey Saunders, Charlotte Voisey and Dale DeGroff come in and sit at your bar,’” says co-founder Lynnette Marrero.
And are owners getting a little fed up that Joe Bartender is off to Kuala Lumpur? “The thing about being outside corporate America,” notes Wiznitzer, “is that we don’t get paid for shifts we take off. But the perk is we have the ability to travel. For the most part, bar owners are very encouraging of their staff working hard to get this sort of recognition. You take a lot of pride in a staff that wins competitions.”
And who knows—a competition may give birth to a new drink sensation. Or not. Perhaps ironically, one of the most surprising competitions so far this year was a bartender competing against no one but himself and the clock—and winning. In March, Sheldon Wiley set a new world record for the most drinks mixed in one hour in a showcase sponsored by Stoli. He pumped out 1,905 drinks, not repeating a single one.
ALL OVER THE PLACE
Here are a few more examples of how far and wide mixology competitions range: