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33 ways to win a cocktail competition

Success in a cocktail comp can radically change a bartender’s career. As a new season returns, DRiNK speaks to some of the biggest names behind the bar for their tips on how to come top.

1 Don’t forget to use the sponsor’s spirit
“I entered a classic cocktail comp in Melbourne a few years ago and it was a nightmare,” says Tim Philips, the Australian winner of World Class Bartender of Year 2012. “I forgot to put the whisky in a Manhattan, instead I picked up the vermouth twice. Still, I just apologised and started again. I’d rather go over time than make a bad drink.”

2 But if you do, don’t cry
“If you make a mistake, just smile, laugh it off,” adds Philips. “I’ve lost ten times as many competitions as I’ve won. If it wasn’t for the losses, I’d never have learnt what I did to start winning.”

3 Because, after all, it’s just a competition
“In the global final of Bacardi Legacy I forgot to put the Bacardi in one of my drinks,” says Chris Moore, head bartender at the Beaufort Bar at the Savoy, London. “It’s tough. But you have to keep your head held high. Just try to remember it’s not the end of the world.”

4 And it’s not just about the winning
“Competitions are what you make them,” adds Moore. “They aren’t compulsory to have an amazing career. In fact, if you look at most of the top bartenders in the world today, very few of them have won big competitions.”

5 Chill. Enjoy yourself
“Judges aren’t just scoring the drink, they’re judging the bartender, too,” says Paul Mathew, a former judge at World Class China. “Bartenders who are clearly enjoying themselves will be far better at communicating their concept successfully. A drink served with passion will be much more successful that the sum of its ingredients alone.”

6 Love thy judges
“I can’t think of anything more amazing than the times when someone has shown up with snacks for the judges,” says Jeffrey Morgenthaler, award-winning Oregon bartender-blogger and judge at last year’s Tales of Cocktail Official Cocktail Comp. “We get pretty hungry during a long day of judging – and a little treat can go a long way.”

7 They’re watching everything you do
“Doing anything unsanitary is usually a good way to irritate a judge. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone take a straw taste of a cocktail, and then put the used straw back in the drink to taste it again. Things like that are the first things we notice.”

8 Absolutely. Everything
“Always treat your judges like three-year-old children,” says Yao Lu, Shanghai bartender and current Bacardi Legacy China final judge. “Walk us through the ingredients you’re using. What are they? Why are you using them? How do the flavours react to each other? Why are you rolling instead of shaking?”

9 Be prepared for really anal questions
“I remember one competitor shaking an egg drink with a tiny goblet shaker packed with chunks of ice,” continues Lu. “Now, he had a beautiful shaking technique, and a beautiful gold-plated goblet. But I just had to ask, ‘What’s the point of using such as technique if you want the proteins to emulsify?’ And I couldn’t get an answer. So that tells me, one: The competitor doesn’t understand the ingredients he’s using. Two: The competitor doesn’t understand the science behind his technique. Three: He values aesthetics above everything else.”

33 Ways to Win a Competition

10 Have a rationale for everything
“It’s great to have a story to your drink but having a relevant reason to why you’re doing something is more important,” says Zachary de Git, World Class Singapore winner 2013.

11 Don’t ignore the judges’ advice
“I led a workshop that led into a competition using fresh ingredients and condiments,” explains Spike Marchant, long-serving World Class judge and Diageo brand consultant. “I warned the bartenders before the challenge that I dislike Amaretto. I also spotted a jar of anchovy paste on the backbar. I commented that it would be almost impossible to make a cocktail using that ingredient. Hey presto, the very first bartender stepped up to make an Amaretto-Anchovy Sour. It’s comfortably the most disgusting thing I’ve ever drunk.”

12 And don’t make them feel weird and uncomfortable
“Certainly one of the worst tricks that I’ve ever seen is getting the gurus to shake the cocktail themselves.”

13 Remember, they’ve probably seen it all before
“The bar industry moves on with different trends each year so last year’s wow can be this year’s predictable,” adds Marchant. “Molecular techniques that are badly applied are an obvious no-no. And smoking guns and mini-barrels with aged spirits were all the rage last year.”

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14 So be original
Shaher Misif, San Francisco bartender and winner of GCP G’Vine 2012 and last year’s Anchor Distilling’s 21st Amendment: “I remember, in the 2012 42 Below comp, my friend Marian Mercer made a Willy Wonka-themed cocktail, so she rented a little person to dress up as an Oompa Loompa and serve her cocktail to the judges. She didn’t win. But it was very cool.”

15 Keep it simple
“One of the quickest ways to bore a judge is to turn something straightforward into a scavenger hunt by using obscure ingredients or turning a simple recipe into a treatise on science by trying to make it more complicated than it has to be,” says Derek Brown, Washington-based journalist-bartender and judge at last year’s Tales of the Cocktail Official Cocktail Competition. “I admit that great cocktails can be complicated. But that doesn’t mean that complication is itself a virtue. Think of the Daiquiri or Martini. Both great drinks. Both have become iconic and consumed worldwide. This should be the model for bartenders when thinking about creating a drink: make it original but include no more ingredients than are necessary to make it refreshing and delicious. I always recommend taking away at least one add-on ingredient and seeing if the cocktail still works. If it does, that means the underlying structure is sound.”

16 Don’t over-complicate
“It’s usually drinks that employ too much smoke and mirrors that are really bad,” says Gaz Regan, global cocktail authority and World Class judge. “Some bartenders think that, unless they use fat-washing, or blow mesquite smoke through a spirit, then they aren’t going to impress the judges. Usually, the opposite is true.”

17 Unless you really know what you’re doing
“Then again, sometimes smoke and mirrors pays off,” continues Regan. “This was the case with the Grilled Ham, Cheese and Tomato Sandwich Martini I sampled at one competition. Muddled tomatoes, ham-infused vodka, topped with parmesan foam. I shook my head until I tasted it. It was fabulous.”

18 Above all, to thine own self be true
“Play to your strengths,” says Michael Callahan, winner of 42 Below Cocktail World Cup 2011 and founding bartender of 28 Hong Kong Street, Singapore. “If you are not a Japanese-style bartender why hard shake? If you’re normally shy why build a lengthy script? Take the skills and traits that you know work for you and build upon that base. It will help you come across more confident, more natural and, ultimately, more professional.”

19 Don’t be a drunk idiot
“Competitions often go on for hours,” adds Callahan. “Everyone has to arrive at the same time and you often draw from a hat to see who’s up first. A lot of the time, bartenders who end up going last have a drink or two to calm the nerves, Some end up tipsy, or worse flat-out drunk.”

33 Ways to Win a Cocktail Competition

20 Make sure you’re telling a story
“Storytelling is a massive part of our culture,” says Elizaveta Evdokimova, Russian winner of Bacardi Legacy 2013. “That’s why we call it ‘cocktail culture’; it’s about stories and the connections between the drinks and the customers. A good story helps the customer define their experiences. My winning cocktail, The Knight Cup, was a play on ‘night cap’. But I also made a connection between the bat on the Bacardi logo and the heraldic use of a bat on the coat of arms of the legendary ‘knights’ of Aragon from Catalonia – the Spanish province of the original Bacardi founder Facundo Bacardi.”

21 Don’t mess too much with the sponsor’s spirit
“Certainly the worst idea I’ve ever seen was a bartender who re-distilled a spirit on stage right in front of the master distiller without actually having a reason behind it,” says Alex Kratena, head bartender at the Artesian in London “It’s like saying the product wasn’t good enough in the face of the guy who made it!”

22 Show you know how to use it
“Winners of cocktail competitions will usually have shown that they understand the nuances of a product and how best to highlight that in a cocktail,” says Tim Stones, Beefeater brand ambassador and judge at Beefeater 24 Global Bartender Competition. “They will have been creative without overwhelming the product.”

23 Don’t be a cocktail bore
“Brand-wise, I don’t need to be told everything about Beefeater,” says Stones. “I know it already. Some competitors like to repeat all the botanicals and the history. We don’t need to hear all that. We just want to see that you understand the essence of the brand.”

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24 Follow the rules
“Paying attention to the format of the comp is super important,” says Jacob Grier, winner of last year’s Tales of the Cocktail Official Cocktail Comp. “A drink that doesn’t fit the format isn’t going to win, even if it’s otherwise great.”

25 Don’t kiss the judge’s ass. Be normal
“Ultimately, we want the competitors to be conversational in the way they discuss the brand,” advises Max Warner, Chivas Regal brand ambassador. “Treat the judges like guests at a bar or a dinner party. Imagine you’re describing the drink to a good friend. Sometimes the brand and spirit is overplayed and the story becomes dull and repetitive.”

26 Brands are looking for ambassadors
“Don’t be rude about anything or anyone – ever,” says Warner. “Brands will want the winner to act as a sort of brand ambassador after the competition,” adds Stones. “So they’ll be looking for someone who can act in a manner that suits the brand.”

27 Only fools rush in
“It’s a bad idea for young, beginner bartenders to jump into competitions,” says Cross Yu, China finalist at World Class 2013. “I’d say get at least two or three years behind the bar first. I’ve seen a lot of Chinese bartenders go straight in for the fame or exposure. That’s fine. Show your face. But it takes real experience and skill to win.”

28 Remember, you’re from China
“I did well in World Class because I was myself; I presented who I am and I brought a bit of China to the competition,” continues Yu. “I used a bit of kung-fu in my style. So the other contestants started calling my shake the ‘kung-fu shake’. It’s about using techniques or a style that make sense to everyone, but adding a bit of your own culture to it.”

29 Prepare. Don’t rely on the sponsor’s ingredients
“Think comprehensively, from ingredients, to garnishes to equipment,” says Jason Xue, bar manager at Bar Pure, Wuhan, and second place runner-up in the Tahona Society Cocktail Competition in Mexico 2012. “Although most sponsors provide fruits, you need to test them first. Check whether the lemon is too sour. I’ve noticed most top bartenders bring their own ingredients and ice to make sure their drinks are perfect.”

33 Ways to Win a Cocktail Competition

30 And, again, remember you’re from China
“At the start I just said to the judges, ‘Sorry, my English isn’t great, but I’ll try my best’,” continues Xue. “And they found my honesty endearing. Plus, my presentation was really Chinese. I was myself. And that helped me squeeze into the top.”

31 Go and watch a comp before entering one
“I won World Class India in 2011. Earlier that same year, the global finals took place in my home town, New Delhi,” says Devender Sehgal, bar manager at Otto e Mezzo, Hong Kong. “So I went to observe the competition very closely and leant a lot about what I needed to do to win. I realised it’s not just about making a great drink. It’s the whole presentation, the idea, how you conduct yourself and your ability to connect to the person across the counter.”

32 Make friends, network
“My main motivation for entering comps has always been to build friendships and learn from people,” says Cherry Lam, bartender at Quinary and Hong Kong winner of Beefeater 24 2013. “I don’t see a competition as a competition. I see it as a bartender get-together. That makes it a lot less stressful.”

33 Keep your ego in check
“My advice: enter, have fun, win, and then forget about it,” says Eddy Yang, World Class host and founder-owner of The Tailor Bar. “Don’t let it go to your head. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of Chinese bartenders. They win and they think they’re great. They go back to their employer and say, ‘I want more money’. No, kid. You made a fancy drink in a competition. You’ve still got a lot to learn. Do you think that’s how the top bartenders in the world behave? Some winners are in their 40s! And what do they do? They win. They go back behind the bar and take care of their guests. Like I always say: the best bartenders in the world are still behind the bar.”

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