Can we talk about bar awards?

Words by Jane Ryan

Can we talk about bar awards? image 1

Jane Ryan takes a look at the global bar awards and how they fit into the future of the drinks industry.

As the cycle of awards pushes on as the bar industry battles to survive, it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that there’s a few… shall we use the word interesting… discussions happening online around the relationship between bars and awards.

Even before the Spirited Awards published its 2020 top ten list, which incited plenty of angst at its timing, there was a simmering level of vitriol online towards what some in both the culinary and cocktail world were describing as the dead-weights of their industries. The idea that COVID-19 would cleanse us all of anything unnecessary leaving a streamlined and clutter-free world to return to - where people choose carefully about where to spend their money, focus on supporting local establishments (and stopped caring about where a bar might rank internationally) seems increasingly unlikely.

Maybe these predictions will come to fruition, I’m certainly not able to gaze into any crystal balls on the matter, but I have my doubts. It’s more likely awards will continue as long as they are a profitable business, and there’s simply no use being angry about the way capitalism works if you want to sell cocktails, pay rent and cover staff wages. But what I do want to discuss is the relevancy and transparency of bar awards in 2020 and beyond. Because, like them or not, we’ve ended up in a situation where we pat the winner on the back and then turn in outrage to social media to lambast the whole system.

To do this I want to put aside the total global disaster that is COVID-19. Ask you to park your feelings about awards during shutdown – whether it’s good they’re trying to keep things positive and give hope, or insensitive to those without work, pay or subsidies – and attempt a bigger picture discussion.

The situation, as I see it, is that as much as we may dismiss awards or say they are meaningless, being ranked in the World’s 50 Best Bars or winning Best International Cocktail Bar at Tales of The Cocktail Foundation equates to media attention and increased bums on bar seats. It also means brand attention, which can help with activations, pour deals and even more media exposure.

So winning is good. Getting listed or ranked highly is good. But how can we possibly fairly judge a bar in Sydney against one in Hong Kong, one in Paris or one in Mexico City? Our industry has rapidly expanded and in the 13 years since Spirited Awards started there are whole cities that now have great cocktail bars, which weren’t even on the drinking map back in 2007. This is bigger than London and New York now, it’s bigger than a few dozen globetrotting brand ambassadors submitting a hastily cast vote.

Wanting to sound out a few opinions I asked Tim Philips-Johansson who had this to say; ‘I think it's very difficult to have global awards that hold credence in every country. A lot of them come down to nepotism as the people who ultimately vote on these awards are close friends with the venue owners… I'm sick of an organization on the other side of the world telling me this Melbourne bar is better than this bar in Kuala Lumpur. Wait? How? Why? Because you only had two judges from Malaysia, maybe? Come on.’

He’s totally correct – we have not got it right so far when it comes to a balanced world view. Having been a part of the London industry for years I can attest to the fact it wasn’t so palpable there, but I live 12,000 miles away now and am still surrounded by great bars and innovation on par with my old home. Honestly though, I don’t see many of them making 50 Best simply because of the distance they exist from the bulk of the academy of voters.

I’m not entirely sure it will ever be possible to get it right, and yet… perhaps naively I still feel there are merits to trying to award on a global level, as opposed to putting eminence on local awards. I jumped on the phone to discuss this with Ryan Chetiyawardana a few nights ago and he made the excellent point that the more micro you get with awards, the more risk there is of the awards being pointless. Winning world’s best gin means something. Winning the best gin distilled in the metropolitan area of Melbourne in 2018 using seven or fewer botanicals and aged for a minimum of three months means… well not a great deal. And I may be exaggerating there, but the point is we’re a global industry and we’re always going to want to be judged against our peers, not just our neighbours.

Which brings us neatly to transparency. If you are not transparent, then surely the awards are just a gesture. Who is voting, how many in each country, what are the criteria? It’s been argued that having criteria around judging a bar is tricky because what makes a great bar to me might not be the same to you. I disagree, and I’m going to lean on Ryan’s example from our chat to demonstrate. He pointed to awards in other industries that are held in high regard for having consistent and clear criterion. The D&AD awards and the Wallpaper Design Awards are two he referenced that display a clear professionalism around their criteria and judging and as much as people may disagree there is never any surprise as to who wins – because it’s clear to see why they were awarded.

World’s 50 Best Bars places standards around what you can vote for – i.e. not having a financial interest in a venue and having a maximum of three out of seven votes in your home country. But it relies on the integrity of its voting academy – over 500 people – to choose based not on friendships, not on pour deals, but on excellence. An excellence that has no definition, but which sways journalists the world over on which venues they’ll review and cover.

The high-volume category at Spirited Awards is one that, year after year, raises eyebrows. There is no definition of high-volume apart from having a capacity over 75 and this loose phrase ‘consistently produces a high-number of quality cocktails weekly.’ What’s a high number? Because I’ve worked in two bars that have been on that nominee list and there was a big disparity between how many drinks went out weekly. Perhaps being unable to justify why a bar is the best in the world, in whatever category, means we shouldn’t give it that title.

However (because nothing is ever that simple) the problem with fitting a criteria, is that is promotes homogeneity. ‘The beauty in bars is diversity, and we need to keep celebrating that,’ Ryan said to me. ‘In want of a better system – we maybe have the best of a bad bunch.’

Yet I would still argue that as we grow and age as an industry, asking time and again for more integrity and professionalism to be seen and celebrated within our ranks, that we need to tighten up our rules on awards – especially as they are increasingly used as a tool to promote us to the wider world.

Zdenek Kastanek made the excellent point in a (P)our panel discussion on awards in 2017 that in 10 years we have effectively gone from having no awards, to having awards, to loving them, to hating them, to not knowing how we feel. It’s been one helluva crazy rollercoaster of emotions. It’s so early on in this journey maybe we haven’t settled in to a rhythm, found the best way of going about things.

One facebook comment that attracted my attention on the subject recently was this:
‘We all know the best bartenders don’t have awards.’
‘Truth,’ someone responded.

Is that the truth? I’m not so sure. If I look back at the list of names who’ve won Best International Bartenders at Spirted Awards it’s a fantastic line-up of super talented individuals. I’m not saying I agree, or even for that matter have an opinion, on every nomination that comes out of Tales of the Cocktail – but does winning that accolade somehow make Alex Kratena or Ryan Chetiyawardana a worse bartender because they were congratulated on an international platform and had the audacity to accept the award rather than humbly work unrecognised? And surely having people who have ostensibly made a great success of being a bartender is hugely beneficial for the entire industry?

It feels like the only way to come out of this with your integrity, and quiet the haters, is to win but act like you shouldn’t have. We want our winners to be humble, to reject it, we want them essentially to act like it’s all some mistake and they didn’t even know the awards were on that night. As Alex and Simone rocked up to consecutive World’s 50 Best Bars ceremonies in their work uniform, nabbed first place and then rushed back to work, we all loved it – we thought they were rock stars for not taking a night off. And on the flip side we detest it when someone is seen to be coveting an award. Yet, I’d argue we did that – we put such a huge emphasis on bar awards that owners and bartenders the world over wanted a slice of that recognition. Then we snubbed them for being so blatant.

Running a bar to win awards is, I think most of us will agree, rather pointless. Canvassing for awards is not the reason we get into this industry and it feels unseemly at best. But we cannot tsk at those who try to emulate Lyanesss serves, The Savoy drinks, Nomad menus or Dante service. The industry said those were the best – and if we put bars on a pedestal we must expect imitation to follow.

So what can we do? By all means keep posting your memes on Facebook but also we must encourage uniqueness and innovation at all costs to keep at bay a slew of bars trying to be The Artesian. We must understand that awards convey us to other industries and so we must be at all times able to justify how an award system works – be it panel judged or voted by an academy – and why a bar or person or team won. We must try to make them more meaningful without placing any more meaning on them in our day-to-day work. And we must try to keep sponsorship as far away as possible from decision making.

I want to end on a high note, and flag one huge merit of having awards which is crucial to remember as we get upset year after year, one award ceremony after the next – and that is they can give recognition to people who are putting into practice very unique and challenging ideas, ideas which are otherwise being ignored.

One example of this is the Lyan company and the many fantastic bartenders who’ve worked with Ryan Chetiyawardana. Before White Lyan was recognised at Tales it was being trash-talked by a lot of the industry – for bottling cocktails, for using acids instead of citrus, for in-house fermentation and for nearly everything else that we are all doing nowadays, making it so clearly ahead of its time. Getting a great Time Out review and then winning a Spirited Award in 2014 changed the tide for Ryan and his company’s future. It’s a story that repeated itself with Singapore’s Native – almost ignored until an award recognised its sheer brilliance. And a world where minds like Ryan and Vijay aren’t celebrated is a world I’m not sure I want to drink in.

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