Take the plunge: Cocktail Competitions

by John Collingwood

Final of Fusion, photo by Summerfield Photography

Love them or hate them, currently there is an abundance of global cocktail competitions which act as a fantastic platform in which to showcase to the world what amazing creativity, personality and knowledge you have.  However to even have a sniff of getting in the top 3, let alone to win, you truly have to be at the top of you game.

Why is that?

Over the last few years, there has been a monumental increase in bartenders realising that there is an amazing career to be had in this fabulous industry, but to rise and then stay at the upper echelons, you must be committed and dedicated to your craft. You can never put a price on experience. All those hours spent with your nose in books and behind the bar is your apprenticeship; it breeds knowledge, hones your skills and molds you as an individual.  Just try and learn something new every day, no matter how small it is; as before you know it, those baby steps have grown into completing a marathon.

Passion

This is the one common denominator that resonates through all the fantastic bartenders out there.  If you don't believe me, then watch this video:

What really struck a chord with me were the inspiring words of the late Steve Jobs:

"Sometimes life is going to hit your head with a brick, don't lose faith, I am convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did, you have got to find what you love and that is true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied, is to do what you believe and the only way to do great work, is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking and don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you know when you have found it.”

If like me you have a true passion for making drinks, then you are already halfway there.  As I believe, if you have a burning desire to make the best drinks possible, then your peers and judges will see that passion in your eyes.

The big question is when should you take the plunge and enter competitions?

This is a really difficult to answer, as everyone is different.  What I would say is that if you see a competition that gets your mind wandering and your creative juices flowing, then the time is right! Everyone has had to start somewhere!

It takes a lot of guts and courage to stand in front of your peers and perform.  I am not going to lie and say you will have butterflies in your stomach and you may well get the well known “shaky jigger syndrome,” but that will all be replaced by a rush of adrenalin and a real sense of accomplishment and pride when you step off the stage.

What I am going to try and do now is give you a few hints, which will give you the best possible foundation to putting on an epic performance.

Research, research, research

So you have decided to take the plunge and enter. Well first things first, let me shake you by the hand and wish you good luck. Or should we be less formal and do a high five? You are over the largest hurdle...as if you are mentally prepared for it then anything is possible. To me the research behind creating something new is where all the fun begins, as truth be told, you have not got a clue where it will take you.

Rules

Where a lot of bartenders fall short is by not looking at the rules of the competition; these should always be at the forefront of your mind and the building blocks for what ingredients and methods to use. 

Within these you will see such things as:

  • What is the minimum ml/oz you need to use of the spirit you are creating a drink for?
  • The time limit?
  • What ingredients you can and can't use?
  • What will be provided?
  • The judging sheets?
  • The deadline to submit your creation?

Other things to consider are:

  • Can your creation be easily replicated, not just the ingredients you use, but also think about the prep that may be required, e.g. homemade syrups/bitters?
  • Are the ingredients you use, readily available (i.e. can they be bought at a supermarket or are they specialized retail shop)?
  • If this is an annual competition, do some research into the previous winners.  Then you will get an idea of what the judges are looking for and whether there are any “trends.”
  • Find out who the judges are.  Asking yourself where have they worked? What sort of drinks do they like? 

The Brand

To me this is the most important aspect to consider in any competition. If you understand and know the brand inside, then you will be able to present your creation in a confident and succinct manner. Most brands nowadays offer amazing training that give you a true insight into it its heritage, production and delicious drinks you can make.  More importantly though, is that you will be able to ask questions face to face to the people that live and breath the brand, the Brand Representatives and Ambassadors.  This information will be invaluable when trying to devise a winning drink.

If the above is not possible, then there will be a mass of information available to you on the Internet and cocktail books.  In my humble opinion, there is no excuse for not turning up to a competition without a few top line facts about the brand you are showcasing.  This can go a very long way to impressing the judges and indicating you have spent a bit of time doing your homework.

Inspiration could come from:

  • The pioneer who invented the brand in the first place.
  • Where the spirit is made.
  • The classic cocktails that are made with it.

Another way to tackle this is to look at the tasting notes of the chosen brand. Websites such as The Whisky Exchange give excellent simple explanations, and coupled with your own sensory interpretations, you are onto a winner. Once you have picked out a few flavours you like, see if you can harness and elaborate on them.  I can not recommend this book high enough, “The Flavour Thesaurus.” 

"Ever wondered why one flavour works with another? Or lacked inspiration for what to do with a bundle of beetroot? The Flavour Thesaurus is the first book to examine what goes with what, pair by pair. The book is divided into flavour themes including Meaty, Cheesy, Woodland and Floral Fruity. Within these sections it follows the form of Roget's Thesaurus, listing 99 popular ingredients alphabetically, and for each one suggesting flavour matchings that range from the classic to the bizarre." – Courtesy of Amazon.com.uk.

If that does not whet your appetite I don't know what will.  But don't get too carried, what I would say is less is more; too many flavours can confuse the palate.

Your creation

You have done the research; your mind is awash with ideas, so now it is the time to put all the pieces of the jigsaw together. One of the Godfathers of cocktails is a chap called David Embury, whom in 1958 published “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” which is a must buy.

He highlighted some key basic principles to utilize when developing a quality drink:

  • It should be made from good-quality, high-proof liquors.
  • It should whet rather than dull the appetite.  Thus, it should never be sweet or syrupy, or contain too much fruit juice, egg or cream.
  • It should be dry, with sufficient alcoholic flavour, yet smooth and pleasing to the palate.
  • It should be pleasing to the eye.
  • It should be well-iced.

This to me summarises perfectly what you have to do.

Personally I love everything that surrounds a cocktail, from the way it is presented, the aromas that drift up from it, to the taste that tickles your mouth with bursts of perfectly complimented flavours, and it must be a fully rounded sensory experience.

Remember that the first bite is in the eye, therefore your creation should be served in a beautifully chilled glass. Don't go for your bog standard Collins that looks naff. If you are spending so much time and effort making a balanced and delicious drink, then you should take the same amount of pride in what it is served in. Furthermore, a garnish can take your drink to the next level.  A simple twist of a citrus fruit can make all the difference, as 80% of flavour comes through aroma. If you smell something, you will taste it.  That is why a twist of lemon is such an important element to making a rounded Dry Martini, it adds a touch of class.  Also, make it look neat and tidy, squaring off the edges and getting rid of the bitter white pith.

Practise makes perfect

Well done, you have made your drink, now it is the small part of practising, practising and practising some more.  As you have spent a great deal of time developing it, you will now have the confidence and tools to devise a concise and interesting talk, that effortlessly flows between your inspiration, why you have used the ingredients and then link it all back to the brand.  

If the rules say you have 5 minutes, then that is all you have. If you run over, then you could be penalised.  So jot down the key facts and memorize them, as when you are standing in front of the judges, nerves can kick in.

The night before

Make sure you gather all your ingredients, equipment and notes together; as if the worst came to the worst and you slept in, you don't want to be rushing around and forget something. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so dress to impress.  Think to yourself what is the target market of the brand you are showcasing?  Do I need to be suited and booted or is it more relaxed.  Use your own judgment and common sense.

The Big Day

It is finally here... the nerves will be kicking in, but try and remain calm.  Give yourself plenty of time, as it is far better being 30 minutes early than 30 minutes late.

Don't be shy, be confident. 

I have made some great friends through competitions, one of which is Jamie Jones, whom I met at the Havana Club Grand Prix UK Final a couple of years ago.  He has some words of wisdom to share;

"I don't have a secret recipe for winning comps. I have many wins to my name, but I haven't won them all. But one thing I always gain from each competition I attend is new friends and more contacts in our industry. My advice to anyone doing comps is say hello to all your fellow competitors, shake their hand, talk to them. It will relieve any tension that inevitably mounts during the comp and you're sure to have an awesome day, win or lose because you have taken the time to get to know people who care just as much about being there as you do.

Bit soppy I know, but it's truly what i believe..."

So all that is left is for you to get up and perform.  Take a deep breath, get yourself organised and have some fun.

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