Winning Isn't Everything Or…

by Francine Cohen

Take the top prize in a cocktail competition and you might find yourself on an all expenses paid trip to Oktoberfest (Barenjager – www.barenjagerhoney.com), St. Maarten (Domaine de Canton – www.domaninedecanton.com), Puerto Rico (DonQ- www.donq.com), Peru (Macchu Pisco - www.machhupisco.com) or even Tales of the Cocktail (Cat Daddy – www.catdaddymoonshine.com).  But, while a vacation, prize money, and a shot at eternal glory (at least until next year’s competition when you have to defend or give up your title) sounds really appealing, there are so many more important reasons to enter cocktail competitions.

For some, it’s the name recognition, for others, brand recognition and for some it’s the thrill of the crowd and the camaraderie found in defeat.  Payman Bahmani, who can be found behind the bar at Louis 649 in New York (www.louis649.com) and is the brain trust behind the consulting company www.lifesacocktail.com, is a newbie to the competition circuit.  He explains his impetus for getting involved in competing this early in his career and says, “Among other things, it’s just the thrill of competition.  Just to be in the same room with 16 or 20 of the top people in New York City.  For me it didn't matter I didn't win, it was enough just to compete with them.  It’s a learning process too.  You think you know a balanced cocktail then you have one of Brian Matthys’ and you go ‘oh, now that’s balanced.’”

Balancing his status as a veteran with the need to remain on the cutting edge, James Menite, Beverage Director at Fornino Park Slope in Brooklyn, New York recently entered the New York Centennial Macchu Pisco Sour Competition.  Seeing Menite put his drink up against his peers’ is not a regular sight; last time we saw him at a competition (DonQ’s during the Manhattan Cocktail Classic 2010) he was sitting right next to us on the judging panel.  So, why jump back into the competitive fray?  Menite says, “I just did it because I felt that I haven’t been competing and I’ve been out of the loop.  When you compete your networking skills come out better.  It gives you better perspective.  If you don’t compete people forget about you.  People like Lynnette Marrero compete all the time and I think she’s in them more to be recognized than to win.  Not to say she doesn’t win them, because she does win them.  But I need to think about these things because I work in Park Slope now; I don’t work in Porter House New York in midtown any more.  People came to see me at Porter House; it’s more sporadic now that I’m in Brooklyn.”

Menite also knows that his presence not only draws people to Brooklyn to see what he’ll do to pair a drink with their dinner but that it’s good press for the restaurant.  He explains, “If I win it’s ‘here’s the guy from Fornino’ and that gives the restaurant recognition and brings people in.”

Bringing people into the fold and expanding the cocktail circle is what Eric Tecosky of Jones Hollywood liked best as he sat at the judges table during the Los Angeles Centennial Macchu Pisco Competition.  He notes, “The highlight of the competition for me was the amount of "new" faces that took a stab at winning.  For the past couple years it seems that I would always see the same 10-15 people at every event. The lineup of first or second time competitors gives me confidence that the cocktail revolution is recruiting more and more soldiers. This is a good thing.”

Getting in front of a brand is always a good thing for a bartender when he or she may be looking for some contract work down the road.  On the flip side it goes without saying (but yes, we’re saying it) that one of the most important reasons brands put together these competitions is to get in front of as many bartenders as possible en masse and in a really positive way.  Lizzie Asher, President of Macchu Pisco, just wrapped up the nationwide search for the best Pisco Sour in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the rediscovery of Machu Picchu.  In six cities around the country there was a solid lineup of shakers and stirrers vying for a jaunt to Peru where they’d compete in one final round for the ultimate winner to be named. 

Lizzie and her sister Melanie (the brand’s distiller) fashioned this contest in conjunction with the Peruvian government and the Orient-Express and Peru’s national airline but also with something more in mind - community building. She remarks, “Obviously the exposure for brands is a no-brainer, but I think something that I saw happen in our competitions was maybe unique to our format.  As you know, we teamed up participants in 2 - I called it the "buddy system,” which is what it is called when one goes diving so that you always have a partner taking care of you.  And that was the intent in the competition, that all the competitors would at least forge a bond with the person with whom they presented.  This allowed for everyone to go around the room and introduce themselves while they sorted out who their buddy was - it served to force an introduction amongst the entire group.  Yes, some people already knew each other, but the younger people just coming into the fold, they were shy and didn't want to be boisterous but we had some fun couples like Bianca Scott form the Downtown Cocktail Room and Andrew Pollard who heads Bev at the Cosmopolitan.

I was really surprised how many people ended up introducing themselves and allowed them all to meet in equal standing.  And, in LA where that town is so spread out - like I said, it seemed like such a fractured group - the format really allowed for great intros and bonding amongst the group.

And then, of course, I think that Melanie had a genius idea with the Ms/Mr. Congeniality award where you were chosen by your peers as the cocktail that deserved special recognition and that otherwise was overlooked by the judges.  It really encouraged everyone to try everyone's concoctions and fostered conversations as to ingredients and proportions and just a great exchange of ideas.”

That exchange of ideas is something that Crystal Fanale knew was important when she opened up her Domaine de Canton competition to the world.   She remarks, “Including international competitors is important because it creates a global community.”

Creating a community that can learn from one another is a lasting reason for entering competitions; making it much more important than simply walking away with a check.  Perhaps Charles Steadman of Echo in Palm Beach, Florida said it best when he concludes, “Cocktail competitions provide an opportunity to network and see what our peers in the industry are doing. This also allows the brand to up their depletion with the hype of a new cocktail that is in competition at numerous bars that are involved with the contenders.  My advice is to make sure your cocktails are as visually impressive as their flavor profile and not skimp on the details such as the name and thought process behind the drink. Everybody likes to hear a story and look at something pretty.”