Words by Simon Difford
I've judged hundreds of cocktail/bartender competitions, perhaps more than anyone else, and over my 22 years as a drinking scribe I've come across many controversies surrounding such competitions. However, I'm compelled to write this due to a recent competition I had no part in judging and which was held on the other side of the world.
Firstly, it should be remembered that without the support of brands there would be no cocktail competitions and many of the world's most famous bartenders would still be unknown, struggling to progress their careers. Such competitions provide a platform that enables talents to shine so my thanks to every brand that has ever organised or backed a competition.
Case study & my conclusion
The competition in question was organised by a drinks brand with a long and proud history, part of which was its being founded by a woman who overcame considerable odds to establish a thriving business. Happily, and perhaps due to the brand's history, the competition attracted a higher than usual percentage of female competitors.
I have not tried any of the cocktails entered but there appears little or no dispute that the best cocktail won. The controversy surrounds the fact that this cocktail was made by a competitor who, while being an accomplished bartender and previous prestigious competition winner, has a reputation for comments on social media contrary to the brand's heritage, values and ethos (and indeed our own). It is this which has sparked a backlash by members of the local bartending community.
The controversy surrounding the choice of winner was not helped by the lack of diversity in the judging panel (three male judges). However, as the brand has pointed out, the judges were simply judging according to the scoresheet criteria which purely sought to find the best drink. The personal views of the competitors were not being judged.
According to the judging sheets and associated rules the result may have been fair, but the unbalanced nature of the judging panel and the brand's background history lead to their choice of winner being questioned.
The competition is now in the past and the winner announced. As with all competitions "the judges' decision is final". However, considering the brand's history I would have liked to see both the brand and winner concede that it would at the very least be fitting for the bartender in second place (a woman, as was the third-place competitor) to also be given a chance to represent her country in the final along with the (male) winner.
A spokesperson for members of the Brazilian bartending community told us, "We would like to request the cancellation of the championship in the Brazil phase" and went on to say (I paraphrase from Portuguese translation) "that time is required to better organise their events to be compatible with the quality, history and tradition of the brand, with clearer regulations and better organising of not only the basic infrastructure but its judges and competitors as well."
Obviously, the above is at the brand's discretion and not Difford's Guide's. We conveyed our disquiet to the brand concerned on the 12th of September and await their response.
I have judged many global finals and generally been very impressed by competitions such as World Class, Legacy and the West Cup, the latter proving that relatively small brands can have a huge positive impact on bartending careers.
However, it is not a bartenders' competition but a bar entrepreneur's competition that I believe sets a best practice judging example for future cocktail competitions. We (Difford's Guide) helped shape this competition but right from the start, the brand insisted that both judges and judging be independent and impartial, to the extent that the judges and not the brand selected both the finalists and winner. Following this shining example, I suggest the following:
1. While recognising that brand ambassadors, usually ex-bartenders, have an important role in bridging the relationship between brand and bartender, the rest of the judges should be independent of the brand; from selecting who competes (if selected according to recipes submitted) through to the selection of finalists and the eventual winner(s). Decisions should also be free from brand influences and considerations such as volumes sold by the bar a bartender represents or the notoriety of that bar.
2. The judging panel must have bartending/drinks industry experience and be considered experts. You don't invite somebody who's illiterate to judge The Booker Prize. Although consumers will hopefully end up drinking the cocktails made in such competitions, I feel that bartenders should be judged by their peers. Bartending is a respected profession and bartenders should only be judged by fellow respected professionals.
3. The expert judging panel should be as diverse and as balanced as possible, including at least one female, and indeed one male judge.
4. The rules of the competition and judging criteria should be made publicly available for at least a month before and after the competition.
5. Such competitions are held to advance bartending and cocktail culture in general, and ultimately award best bartender/cocktail. They also arguably help promote the brand(s) behind them. I worry about the personal lives of politicians coming into politics, let alone the career of bartenders so there should be a limit on how competitors' personal beliefs influence competition judging. However, I suggest that rules surrounding entry criteria include a checkbox similar to those affirming entrants agreeing to T&Cs and being over the LDA with something along the lines, "I confirm I do not hold beliefs, neither have I expressed beliefs in public or private which contradict the stated values of brand X."
Standardised & downloadable rules & judging criteria
I am now working on bartender/cocktail competition rules and judging criteria which I will ensure are available to freely download from Difford's Guide [I'll add a link here ASAP]. I invite and encourage feedback so these can be continually amended and improved to ensure fairness. In the meantime, I'd appreciate your sending views and suggestions to email@example.com.
I would also very much like to engage with some of the armies of attorneys and legal advisers employed by the major drinks companies as I would value their help in drafting a document all could respect. If you are in such a company and can help facilitate this then please also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.