Have cocktail competitions jumped the shark?
With cocktail competitions finding themselves under a critical lens recently, MIXOLOGY asks insiders for the scoop and examines the role the events play in today’s bartending world.
“Despite their utter futility, cocktail contests continue in favor.” The pioneering New York food critic and author of Along the Wine Road, G. Selmer Fougner punched these characteristically dry and witty words into his typewriter nearly eighty years ago, but the sentiment rings as true today.
The competition combustion
In the last few years we have seen an explosion of bartending competitions, with contests of all different kinds cropping up across the globe. High budget corporate-sponsored competitions such as Diageo World Class, or the Bacardi Global Legacy in The States have become an industry unto themselves, offering outlandish sums as cash prizes for winners and flying in judging panels of internationally renowned experts.
Diageo in particular seems to have a Bond villain-like flair for drama and glamor. Two years ago the global final was held on a Mediterranean cruise ship, and this past year’s began at the end of a luxury train ride from Scotland to London on an empty platform.
Each contest claims to crown a champion based on the opinions of authorities in the field, but many luminaries of the cocktail world are unconvinced that the modern version of this format can remain true to the craft or even assess a bartender’s ability at all.
One mixologist with years of contest experience expresses his concerns telling MIXOLOGY that “contests in which the most talented mixologist wins are disappearing.” He feels “the judges who are judging are no longer professional or objective.” As the organizers of the Made in the GSA contest, and media partner of many international cocktail competitions, MIXOLOGY is especially interested in unearthing the possible problems with the competition model and finding ways to improve.
Drink to excess
The recent Diageo World Class competition was an example of much of what was at once attractive and unattractive about the contest model. The event drew legendary names such as Ricky Gomez and Angus Winchester to judge and carefully vetted mixologists to create and compete.
But while the competition was one of the most renowned gatherings of craftspeople in the cocktail world, the drinks themselves were in many ways not the focus. Dean Callan, brand ambassador for Monkey Shoulder whiskey, is one of many to notice this shift. He wonders, “if we are doing this for the sole purpose of winning a reward, or for the admiration of our peers then what will we learn that can be passed on to our guests?”
Who is behind the bar?
When MIXOLOGY heard from one competition critic that “bartenders are required to give brands a huge presence in their bars in order to participate,” it became easy to see why some dismiss the competition as mere product placement.
Callan points out, “It can be hard for brands organizing cocktail competitions to truly see a return on investment without compromising the integrity of the competition by attaching some sales focused objectives.” While our sources were somewhat divided as to whether this commercial thrust cheapens results, it’s hard to see how contests can remain unbiased when their endgame is sales.
Although competitors are required to promote the brands sponsoring the competitions, they’re not paid for their labor, and as contests multiply and grow more international in scope, one bartender recognized that “Some are so all encompassing and involve so much that they keep you from your real job which is bartending.
”If you follow certain award winning bartenders from London on Twitter or Instagram you get the feeling they spend more time travelling and promoting drinks for sponsors than actually tending bar. This jet-setting lifestyle violates the spirit, no pun intended, of the profession. It is easy to be concerned that the current climate will create a new generation of marketing and image-oriented mixologists who value titles and recognition over their craft.
On the bright side
Even the most cynical members of the cocktail elite are not likely to forgo competitions outright. Oliver Ebert, owner of twice Mixology Bar awarded Becketts Kopf places little stock in the outcomes of the contests but still says that he enjoys attending and judging for the chance to socialize with tastemakers he does not normally encounter in a setting he would find more palatable. Callan tells MIXOLOGY “the number one thing a competition gives you is a shared experience, I have made a lot of good friends from people I once competed against. It’s a great way to meet like-minded professionals.”
Where to go from here
The role of the contests in the international bar scene is difficult to determine. Many such as Dean feel that competitions should be a place to openly showcase “new techniques or works in progress and receive feedback from peers.” Several of the bartenders we spoke to would also like to see peer judges, or critique sessions in place of rankings at future competitions.
It is hard to imagine anyone refusing an invitation that comes with access to such an array of scintillating personalities, not to mention the backdrop of exotic vacation destinations. So while brands may develop more subtle methods of sponsorship in response to late skepticism, it is unlikely that the competition trend is on its way out. Futile or not, cocktail contests continue in favor.
Foto: Fish via Shutterstock