For major spirits companies, cocktail competitions have long been a way to get products into the hands of creative bartenders and customers. Events start at the local level and scale all the way up to international tournaments, with potential for major prizes, mentorship from past winners, and rapid career growth.
Despite the potential benefits of getting involved with these kinds of events, not every brand wants to (or is able to) host. Independent spirit brands like Good Vodka, a vodka made from coffee fruit, find competitions too expensive and time-consuming for their small teams, which instead builds relationships with bartenders by “doing the legwork from bar to bar, account to account,” explains co-founder Tristan Willey. Willey won an Old Forester Old Fashioned Competition while working at Nomad, in addition to serving as a judge for similar competitions. He notes that judging comes with its own challenges, like drinking many Bloody Marys in quick succession, but competitions can be heartbreaking, too. “It’s all so subjective. Bartenders, especially the people who are in a position to benefit from this, it costs them so dearly to be a part of this — ingredients, travel, a major toll on energy levels,” Willey explains. “I’ve seen so many bartenders and barbacks go through this. It’s quite draining and can quite frequently be for nothing.”
The United States Bartenders Guild is one frequent cosponsor of these competitions, including USBG Presents WorldClass Sponsored by Diageo. Competitions are a cornerstone of its programming in part because they offer something that’s hard to come by in the industry: professional development. USBG executive director Aaron Gregory Smith explains that these events serve as a place for bartenders to get feedback on the drinks they’re producing. “Hospitality can be such a grind and you’re really segmented,” he adds. At a competition, someone who works at a sports bar can try making different cocktails or learn about food pairings.
For global bartending champion and founder of Crafthouse Cocktails Charles Joly, WorldClass was a life-changing opportunity. “I wasn’t happy with how many competitions were being run, and didn’t feel like simply judging liquid in a glass was a measure of what we did as bartenders,” he says. “That was, until I saw the World Class competition.” Joly says WorldClass was completely different; not a cocktail competition, but a challenge that put his colleagues’ skills as bartenders to the test. “Hospitality, creativity, speed, efficiency, and more are all on the table,” he says. Joly has stayed involved as a judge and educator and believes the win helped him “branch out independently.”
On a larger scale, competitions can also improve bar culture as a result of educational resources offered to both judges and competitors. Since 2017, USBG has worked with Diageo’s HR team to create training for WorldClass regional judges based on hiring and performance appraisals. These trainings are designed to reduce bias in the judging process, Smith explains. “We talk about prototype bias, where you have in your mind an idea of what you’re looking for,” he says. “We talk about how to manage pre-existing relationships, and halo errors, where a really good performance makes the next look worse.” He says these trainings have helped judges overhaul hiring and onboarding training at their home bars.
Still, in an industry where paid time off can be hard to come by, there are barriers to participating in competitions, such as travel expenses and the cost of materials for practicing. Supportive bar owners are critical to ensuring these kinds of events continue, and competitions are expanding the educational aspects of these events to make them more worthwhile; social media training, for example, is a more recent addition to USBG programming. In 2021, Heaven Hill made the competition aspect of the Bartender of the Year event optional and focused on education, with programs on sustainability, equity, and diversity led by industry leaders like Claire Sprouse and Jackie Summers.
Meanwhile, on the brand side, Karen Grill, southwest portfolio ambassador at Rémy Cointreau, says that competitions are “a great way to gauge how our products are used in bars of all kinds, all over the country — we learn so much more about trends and regional uses.” She also values the creativity they foster and the chance to meet talented people in the industry. This year, Grill and her team are hosting competitions where the spirits are made, like the More Taste, Less Waste Competition with Mount Gay Rum in Barbados and the Rémy Martin Bartender Talent Academy in Cognac.
But at Campari America, portfolio brand advisor Anne Louise Marquis is moving away from competitions, which she and her team ran for years for portfolio brands like Grand Marnier and Espolon. After seven years of running Cocktail Fights, an Espolon competition, they shifted to a Loteria-style event for industry professionals to engage with the products and build relationships, through games with smaller prizes. In a crowded space, Marquis finds the biggest challenge with competitions is getting people to care and take a risk that isn’t guaranteed. “There’s an opportunity for rejection, there’s a risk that if someone doesn’t get into a competition they’ll have a negative feeling of ‘Oh, I’m never going to use it again.’” Competing, Marquis explains, takes a lot of time, and is a huge ask.
Marquis believes that brands can engage with bartenders in other ways, like organizing community service days and hosting social and education events. But that’s not to say she hasn’t seen the power competitions like Speed Rack, a speed-based bartending competition for anyone who identifies as a woman, can have when it comes to advancing careers. Co-founder Ivy Mix explains that the competition serves for many as a job fair. “Even if you don’t make it to the top eight preliminary round, even if you don’t make it up on the main stage, walk around the floor, you can make an impression,” she says she tells competitors. Mix and her co-founder, Lynnette Marrero, have many success stories from these competitions, notably Mary Palac, who was recently hired at Campari America as a Mexican spirits portfolio brand ambassador after competing in Speed Rack and Barmania. Speed Rack also features an educational component, including English and Spanish training seminars on YouTube and mentorship programs. Plus, 100 percent of proceeds — they’ve raised over $1 million to date –– go toward breast cancer research.
With Covid-19 restrictions lifting around the country, competitions are expected to be held in person this year, although virtual resources and seminars will likely continue in some capacity. Making drinks behind a bar can be very different from performing and presenting on stage, and Willey commends anyone who puts themselves out there in a competition. “It’s quite terrifying and I do respect it,” he says. After dozens of competitions, Joly has tips for newcomers to the space: “Treat your judges like guests at the bar. All they want is to get to know you and enjoy the time and effort you’ve put into your round. If you’ve created a cocktail that is true to yourself and you’ve put in the time to dial it in, just do what you do every day behind the bar. Be a bartender. And read the rules.” Competitions are not perfect, like every facet of the industry, but to many, they prove worthwhile, a source of creativity, camaraderie, and career growth.