On the House is Eater's column that goes behind the scenes of the restaurant business, written by the owners, operators, chefs and others who make our favorite establishments tick. Today, acclaimed bartender Sean Kenyon, an owner at Williams & Graham and the Occidental, talks about the cardinal rules of participating in cocktail competitions for seasoned and aspiring bartenders alike. Kenyon was named American Bartender of the Year at the Spirited Awards in 2014, one of the highest honors around. The following year, his LoHi speakeasy was named Best American Bar by the same organization.
It seems like every week a new cocktail competition is announced. They are ubiquitous. Sponsored by spirit brands, distributors, non-alcoholic beverage (or even food) companies, bartender organizations, etc, etc. Prizes range from bragging rights, to distillery visits (some international), to straight cash prizes, some up to $25,000. In the past 12 years, I have participated in over 50 competitions. I won a bunch, but most of the time I was not the victor. I have judged, organized and emceed many others locally and nationally. I’ve seen how judges all across the world score competitions and what they seek in a strong competition bartender. I’ve successfully coached a few bartenders through international competitions. The point is that I have seen a lot… enough to offer some advice on competing successfully. This is list is not a clear path to winning competitions, just some advice on how to best prepare and compete. The rest is up to you.
1. Read and understand the rules. Most competitions have specific rules. If you’ve ever participated in an IBA (International Bartenders Association) competition, you would know that there are about 20 pages of rules to read through. It’s over the top, super precise and mind-boggling. No one actually bartends IBA-style in real life. But, we’re not talking IBA here. Most branded competitions also have specific criterion related to dress codes, time limits, ingredients, drink style, garnishes, homemade ingredients, equipment, and most importantly, the use / volume of the sponsor’s spirit. It is up to you as the competitor to know them and to apply them to your drink, your presentation, and your preparation. I have seen many bartenders work their asses off to get to a competition only to be disqualified for not understanding the rules. If you read the rules and don’t understand them reach out to the sponsor for clarification. As far as I know, no one has ever been disqualified for asking too many questions. Avoid competitions that require you to promote yourself or the brand via social media as a requirement of participation.
2. Put the time in developing your drink. Put some thought into it. Be creative. Generally, You are not going to win a competition with a simple "Mr. Potato head" substitution. (ex, switching the curacao out of a sidecar and replacing it with peach liqueur). Stretch your boundaries. Experiment with flavors and preparations. Find unique combinations. Work it out with your peers, have them taste with you. If you can, practice on your guests at the bar. Outside influence is good, but be sure that you are the one who is confident in the final product. You are the one who will be eventually standing in front of the judges. Also, be sure that your cocktail showcases the sponsor ingredient if there is one. Adding a ton of aromatics and amaro (unless that is the point of the competition) can easily overwhelm a cocktail and a judge’s palate.
Once you submit the drink, be sure to be as specific as possible in each detail:
List each ingredient in ounces or milliliters (as required).
Be specific about brands. Don’t just submit "dry vermouth" specify the brand you practiced your drink with.
Specify the strength of your syrup. Ex. 1:1 simple syrup, 2:1 honey syrup.
Are you shaking or stirring
What glassware will you use
What is your garnish
What type of ice?
What equipment will you need? Blenders, Soda Siphon, NO2 canister, torch, etc.
And, or fuck-sake, make your drink before you submit it. Most bartenders do everything last minute, and that applies to submitting for cocktail competitions online. Many wait right up until the 11:59 p.m. deadline and quickly throw in a drink that they have never made with a spirit they have never tasted. I’ve been privy to many a competition deadline where there is twelve submissions at noon and two hundred at midnight. This tactic may get you to the dance, but your chance of being homecoming queen are slim.
3. Bring your own tools. Everyday we work with equipment we are comfortable with. So, it makes sense to bring your woobies/tools with you when you compete. Show up with everything you need to execute the drink(s) and always bring more than you need. Shakers, mixing glasses, strainers (julep, hawthorne, fine), bar spoons, mixing glasses, jiggers, tongs / tweezers, knives, peelers, muddlers, ice scoops, pour spouts, bar towels, polishing towel. Make sure your competition tools are clean and in good shape. DO NOT use tools branded by another company (super rookie move).
4. Be a bartender first. While we are talking about cocktail competitions, the truth is that they are really bartender competitions. You come up with the cocktail, concept your delivery, and set the atmosphere. You are the true vehicle for winning a competition. A bartender with a compelling presentation, fluid technique and personality is way more likely to win a competition with a "good" drink than a quiet, mechanical or terse bartender would with an "amazing" drink. Judges are not robots; they can be swayed by a charismatic presence. Speaking of presentations… be yourself. Prepare with bullet points, but not a script. I’ve seen many over-scripted presentations, and often if the judges dare to ask a question or interject, the bartender often gets flustered or thrown off. Treat the judges as if they are guests at your bar. Make eye contact, shake hands, say hello. Introduce yourself if you have not met them.
5. Nerves happen. As confident as you may feel walking into a competition, it is more than likely that you are going to shake or tremble while presenting. It’s natural. It’s not necessarily nerves; adrenaline has the same effect. One way to steady your jigger is to hold it against your mixing glass or tin. You may drop something, or mis-pour a cocktail. Roll with it. Make a joke about it. But keep moving. If you do drop a tool or glass on the floor, use your spare. Seriously, I’ve seen competitors pick an item up off of the floor and use it. If you don’t have a spare, thoroughly wash it before you use it.
6. Speak confidently. Verbiage is very important. Speak in superlatives. Present with confidence as if your drink will be the best the judges have ever had. Never tell the judges that you "hope" they like a drink, tell them that they will love it. As well, while you want to have comfortable banter, don’t talk too much. You need not narrate every single move, or explain every tiny nuance. For example "now I am jiggering a scant three quarters of an ounce of lime juice that I squeezed fresh with my hand juicer right before I walked onstage because I don’t believe in using machine juiced lime juice." Can simply be "I’m adding about three quarters of an ounce of lime juice." Cocktail competitions are not the place to jump on your haughty cocktailian soapbox. Many people talk too much when they are nervous and even will outline their own mistakes as they happen. ("I forgot the allspice dram, but it should still be good.") Sometimes it’s better to just shut up for a second, or say less. I’m not saying to be silent, just find a good balance while keeping it hospitable and personal.
7. Practice, practice, practice. To be successful in competitions, you need to be able to move at 100mph, but look like you are cruising at 25mph. This takes practice and confidence in the drink making and material you are presenting. Run through your presentation in front of friends and other bartenders several times. Just don’t let their opinions sway you away from being yourself in the competition. If you get down to a final round where it is "on the fly." Feel free to take risks, but I’d avoid methods that are new to you. For example, don’t use a Perlini system or NO2 canister if you aren’t familiar with them. The results could be disastrous.
8. "Dance with the date that brung ya" Did the spirits company fly you to New York or anywhere for that matter for the competition? Are they taking you out for drinks or for dinner? Well, when you are with them drink their products. Seems like common sense, but I have seen a lot of bartenders break this unwritten rule. I was at a major competition recently and the brand was running a tab at a bar after the competition, and a few bartenders were ordering off-brand. Show them some respect. They just spent a lot of money to fly you out, put you up, entertain and feed you. Leave your off-brand t-shirts, jackets, hats, bar bags, aprons, and tools at home. They usually take a lot of pictures at these events and save them the trouble of photo-shopping your Fireball t-shirt out of the shot (unless you’re at a Fireball event). This won’t win a competition for you, but it’s the right thing to do.
9. The devil is in the details aka the other stuff:
Bring extra garnishes, glasses, and ingredients.
Trim your peels. Make them look nice. Leave that ragged edged shit for your home bar.
Take the stickers off your fruit.
If you are working with Kold Draft or large format ice, be sure your ice cubes fit the glass. I’ve seen a lot of bartenders struggle last minute because they have to cut down ice that doesn’t fit.
Chill your glassware if appropriate. 1x1 cubes don’t chill glassware effectively. Crushed is much better in that case. Be sure that your glassware is clean and polished.
If you are going to print a menu, design it. Make sure it looks great. Otherwise, forget about it.
Dress like you care. Be respectful of the style of the competition. Leave your snap-back and t-shirt in your bag for the after party.
Be punctual. Meet all of your call times. In general, don’t be a burden to the staff or organizers.
Respect the volunteers and team. People are nervous during competitions and tend do be short or terse with the staff. Be mindful that they are there to assist you, but are not your personal servants.
10. Play to win, but be ready in case you don’t. If you win, celebrate with your fellow competitors. Don’t gloat. If you do not win (there is no losing), be respectful of the winner. Don’t complain about why they won and you didn’t. Don’t blame it on the judges, where the winner worked or who they knew, the work environment (everyone experienced the same conditions), etc. No excuses. If you believe there was actual misconduct, take it up with the organizers or your local bartenders guild if they were involved. Don’t take it to the street on social media. Take accountability for your own actions. If you thought your drink was a winner, then use it at your own bar. Don’t blame the victor for winning. My father, who also is a bartender, told me "don’t gamble with money you don’t have." My father is a lot more wise than he lets on… mostly he’s just a wise-ass. But, this statement translates to a lot of things in life. In this case, it says, "don’t compete unless you are prepared to accept the fact that you may not win." Don’t white-knuckle it. Relax and enjoy yourself. The worst thing that can happen is that you don’t leave with the prize.
I love cocktail/bartender competitions. They encourage creativity and promote the craft of the bartender. They’ve become a big part of our community. Most important, they bring a like-minded people together under one roof for a night.