How to win a cocktail competition
Words by Simon Difford
Taking part in cocktail competitions is a great way for ambitious bartenders to garner publicity and attract attention from drinks brands and media. Winning such a competition, particularly one of the more prestigious international competitions, can catapult a bartender's career and earnings. I've won two competitions and judged over 100 and with this experience I offer my 30 tips on how to win.
#1. "You've got to be in it to win it"
To state the obvious - miss the entry deadline and you won't win because you won't even be taking part. Don;t leave your entry to the last minute, draft and redraft until you have an entry that will stand out.
#2. "You are remembered for the rules you break."
The famous quote by Douglas MacArthur, the World War II American General, aptly applies to competing in cocktail competitions. The judges are sure to remember you (and not in a good way) if you use seven ingredients when the rules stipulate a maximum of six. Particularly be aware of the following:
• Maximum number of ingredients
• Minimum volume of sponsor's/organiser's ingredient
• Maximum total volume of alcohol in each drink
• Allotted time (so crucial that I'll repeat below) to prepare and present
#3. "Luck favours the prepared"
Which great philosopher said "Luck favours the prepared"? Edna Mode, the eccentric fashion designer in the animation film Incredibles. It may be fanciful fiction, but like most movies, it's based on life's truisms. While there is always an element of luck in winning, those who are well prepared and have thought through what they are going to say and do will give themselves a huge advantage over those who just turn up and wing it.
Working hygienically will earn you points for technique and avoid a judge being put off from even trying your drink.
• Be sure you have clean trimmed fingernails
• Wash/cleanse your hands in front of judges during the setup period
• Don't touch the top, rim or inside of glassware
• Don't touch your face (or any other part of your body)
• Touch as little of the ingredients/garnishes with your hands as possible
Work on perfecting your bartending technique and be sure to demonstrate your all-round proficiency. Working flair, and I stress 'working' flair, with flourishes and graceful moves may gain you points but be wary of such moves adding time/risk. You need to be quick and efficient in your technique. Some things to do / not to do:
• Choose a shaker and other bar tools that you are familiar with and that are second nature to use (if you can't confidently close and open a shaker you are far from ready to compete)
• If using egg white you may decide to dry shake - explain why and perhaps why you've chosen to reverse dry shake
• Crack and separate eggs in front of judges. Watch how TV chefs do it
• Squeeze juices in front of judges
• Jigger rather than free pour
• Briefly present each bottle/ingredient before pouring
• When stirring use your wrist and barely move your arm
• The bowl of the spoon should be in the drink when stirring, not the flat end (Salvatore Calabrese particularly hates and scores down 'wrong end' stirring)
#6. Develop a good routine
Start by introducing yourself and consider placing fresh water in front of each judge. Now the judge(s) have had a chance to discover who you are, up the pace and the energy of your presentation. Being a judge or a spectator at a cocktail competition can be like watching paint dry. Competitors who are entertaining and have a good personality will stand out and are bound to earn themselves extra points. Let's be honest, really great bartenders can entertain their guests as well as make good drinks. Don't be cocky but do be yourself.
#7. Be memorable
I once read a story about a salesman in Texas who despite the searing temperatures wore a heavy fur coat when visiting clients' offices. They may have thought him mad but they remembered him. He was a very successful salesman. Do something / give the judges something, or present yourself in such a way that they are sure to remember you, even if they can't remember your name. At the end of the competition when the judges are comparing notes they will be discussing various competitors - particularly the ones that come most to mind. Make sure that's you.
#8. Practice makes perfect
Despite the proverb, sadly no matter how hard you practice you are unlikely to achieve true perfection but the more you practice the closer you'll get. Don't just practice your drinks and routine on your own, ask friends to stand in as judges and ask you questions while you bartend and deliver your script. Video yourself and look over your performance with a critical eye.
#9. Dress to impress
Cocktail competitions are prestigious and professional events involving premium liquor brands so think 5-star hotel rather than dive bar. Judges such as Erik Lorincz, who always looks like he's just left his tailor, will expect to see competitors suited and booted, or at least in their bar's uniform. You might also consider dressing to suit your cocktail or in your national dress (see #7 - be memorable).
#10. Don't bite the hand that feeds you
Drinks brands invest heavily in cocktail competitions to raise the level and appreciation of bartending while also promoting their brand(s). Consequently, the brand's involvement is likely to be reflected in the judging criteria. This might take the form of points for product knowledge demonstrated or how prominent the taste of the brand is in the finished cocktail.
You could well find a brand manager or brand ambassador on the judging panel so research what other brands are in the company's portfolio and consider using one of these as well as the main base ingredient in your cocktail. Try to avoid using competitors' brands.
Be sure to demonstrate brand knowledge and be sure you know dates, names and places, plus be confident pronouncing them. Don't omit brand facts because a previous competitor has said what you were going to say - if you don't demonstrate your brand knowledge to the judges how are they to award you points for it?
#11. Play to your audience
Find out who will be judging the competition and research their likes and dislikes. Now everyone's life is there to be discovered on the internet this is easier than ever. If they have written a cocktail book then be sure to read it. For example, is that judge likely to dock points if shaken drinks aren't double strained? You might think floating shards of ice on the surface of the drink add texture but are they likely to disagree and mark you down accordingly. (I would.)
In the days before Covid, judges were often expected to share cocktails. You will never be penalised for making a drink for each and every judge and another for the photographer; and if you have time, small samples for spectators. Make more cocktails than the number stipulated to demonstrate you can work quickly and efficiently.
Keep it simple stupid! This applies both to the number of ingredients in your drink and the processes used to make it. Remember, the enduring classics are mostly three to four-ingredient cocktails which are simply shaken or stirred. Even modern-day cocktails which have enjoyed traction are equally as simple.
Competitions encourage bartenders to push the boundaries of bartending but if your drink has convoluted ingredients and is a palava to make then it had better be incredible, but chances are it would have tasted better/as good with fewer ingredients or a simpler method. Simple is beautiful!
#13. Less is more
If the Challenge doesn't stipulate the size or style of drink then you're usually better off presenting short rather than long drinks. The judges are only going to take one or two sips so won't experience how refreshing your long drink actually is. However, the mouthful a judge takes of a short drink will deliver a more intensive flavour experience. Plus, more cocktails in one shaker/stirring glass helps you be generous to the judges and audience (see No.11).
#14. Timing is everything
A time limit will be stipulated for your presentation and points will be deducted for running over time. Those dropped points could cost you victory.
• Time your preparation and presentation and allow for interruptions and questions from the judge(s)
• Take your own timer and be aware of how far your presentation should have progressed on a minute by minute basis
• Don't run over time but do aim to fully and productively use the time allotted to you
• Practice time-saving techniques - speed challenges imparticular are a race and you should be aiming to post the quickest time
#15. Score sheet
In order to maximise your score from each of the judges, you should study the criteria on their score sheet. Typical criteria include:
• Name (see #16)
• Balance (is the drink too sour, too sweet or is it superbly balanced)
• Simplicity (how easily replicated / number of ingredients used)
• Taste (just palatable or truly delicious?)
• Originality (points for innovative methods & ingredients)
• Presentation (the glass and general visual appearance)
• Brand knowledge
#16. Naming Drinks
The brand or brands behind the competition may want to promote your cocktail, hopefully as the winning cocktail, so avoid drink names including rude, lurid, sexual words, or words associated with narcotics or motor vehicles. Be sure to pick a name that people will be proud and confident to order in a bar. Think how the name sounds when shouted out as an order in a busy bar. The name can make or break a cocktail.
#17. Forget an ingredient at your peril
It's surprisingly easy to miss an ingredient out of a recipe so upsetting its balance and you'd be amazed how often I've seen competitors forgetting to include the base spirit - the very product on which the drink revolves. It's galling when such a stupid mistake costs you a competition so consider lining up your ingredients during the setup time and then methodically working through them as you make the drink while presenting to the judges.
#18. You smooth talker
A good yarn will help sell anything and your presentation will benefit from telling the story behind the naming or creation of your drink. What inspired you to choose the name and how did that influence the style of your drink and the ingredients you used? Write your story down and practice reciting it. Consider printing to present to the judges along with your recipe (see #29).
The type of glass or other container in which you choose to present your drink may be inspired by the base spirit, the style of the drink or the name you've given it.
• Take your own glassware
• Have spares for breakages and enough for each judge and any photographer/videographer
• Know the size of your glassware and formulate your drink to perfectly fill it
• Examine each glass carefully for chips and polish each glass prior to setup
#20. Presentation is everything
It's not, but in the case of cocktail competitions how attractively your drink is presented will greatly affect how the judges score it - consciously for presentation and subconsciously when awarding points for taste.
• Props should be relevant and garnishes edible
• Ideally present your drink on an appropriate napkin or coaster and consider using a tray or substitute for a tray to set the scene for your cocktail
#21. "A bad workman blames their tools"
Take your own tools. You'll be more comfortable using them and it's a chance to show off your treasured shaker, strainer, tongs etc to the judges. Obviously, ensure your tools are spotlessly clean and polished. Ideally pack your tools into a dedicated bag, like a photographer's bag, with pockets and sections that quickly allow you to find particular items.
It's common for competition score sheets to include points for originality and a truly creative cocktail - no matter how simple - will almost always out-score a drink that the judges spot as being close or identical to an existing well-established drink. Consider using Difford's Cocktail Finder to check for combinations of ingredients in existing cocktails.
Be aware of how many ingredients each you are allowed to use in your drink and if 'homemade' ingredients are permitted. Be beware of your ability to consistently reproduce these ingredients. Also, consider how globally available the ingredients you have used are and their seasonality. If you make it through the first round or national final, will you be able to make your cocktail where the global finals are being staged?
Your drinks should be well-balanced with alcohol strength, sourness, sweetness, bitterness and dilution all in harmony. Make your own sugar syrup to a carefully measured formulation or use a proprietary brand so you can be sure of the intensity of sweetness (brix). Be particularly aware of the varying degrees of sourness in citrus fruits - especially when working in another continent.
#25. The early bird catches the worm
Arrive early - certainly don't be late. Allow time to familiarise yourself with the bar and venue. Chat to photographers, videoographers and compère. Ask where the judges will be sitting. Double-check your equipment and ingredients. Have everything ready to make the most of the allotted set-up period.
#26. Don't flag mistakes
If you make a mistake don't draw attention to it - the judges might not have noticed. You'll certainly amplify the negativity by drawing attention to it. If you have ruined your formulation and time allows, start again.
#27. Learn from your and others' mistakes
At the event watch other competitors both before and after you. Athletes study their own performance and that of others.
Don't blame bad ice and, if you can, take your own. In 2010, Eric Lorincz won World Class at the final in Greece after wrapping a block of ice with insulation, packing it and flying it from London with his hold luggage. I use a DeWalt 15 litre Cooler Box and, filled with ice cubes from a -18°C freezer, ice can last up to 48 hours depending on ambient temperature.
#29. Accompanying literature
Consider producing hand-outs to give to the judges with the story behind your drink and recipe. This will serve to help them remember you and reduce the notes they take during your presentation so allowing them to concentrate on what you do and say.
#30. Clear away quickly
Don't take ages clearing your equipment away after you have finished your presentation. When practicing your routine include clearing the bar each time.