I was chatting with a couple of friends the other day who are not in the drinks industry. It's always funny to see their reaction when they ask what I'm up to, but this time when I told them I had been invited to Leeds to judge a cocktail competition for Cazadores tequila, I was surprised by what they had to say. One thought I was joking and didn't really believe that bartenders have competitions and the other said that it must just be a thinly desguised excuse for a piss up. Now I can understand the reaction, but it got me thinking about how important competitions really are to the drinks trade.
I guess even from an outsiders point of view there are some obvious reasons for comps. I mean from a brand point of view it is a no brainer. You can create a good buzz around your products, potentially get new drinks on menus, maybe grab some column inches in the trade press and most importantly get bartenders using your brand.
On the most basic level all a brand needs to do is throw some stock at a bar, invite a select few bartenders to come up with a couple of new drinks that fit whatever criteria you want to set, line up some judges, invite the journalists and line up a good prize. The result is several weeks of bartenders talking about the fact they are in your competition, trying out new recipes on customers and co-workers, and promoting your products to anyone who will listen. After the comp they will still sell their signature drinks, maybe even add them to their next drinks list and they will most likely reach for your brand over one of your competitors when they can.
From the bartenders point of view there are some obvious reasons to get involved too. It's a chance for them to break the routine of working shifts behind the bar. They also get a chance to win a prize and in a chronicly underpaid profession that's a good thing. Oh and of course a chance to test yourself against your peers and show what you can do. I think this last reason is probably actually more important than most people think.
You see there are two types of competitions in my experience. The first is the serious one, where only the finest bartenders are invited to compete and are expected to not only make a drink but to promote it to the world as best they can. This is a brand building exercise for both the Brand owner and the bartender. This is a chance for bartenders to show that they are talented proffesionals who deserve respect for mastering their craft. One example of this that springs to mind is the Bacardi Legacy competition is.gd/5bubB which you may have seen us blog about before. Others are less intense but still quite well respected and winning them really means something within the bartending comunity.
Then you have your fun competitions where there is a little less pressure. The thing about these is that from a bartenders point of view they're a chance to bond with other bartenders. It's a small industry but it isn't often that bartenders get to hang out without one of them being behind the bar serving customers, so when the chance comes along they jump at it.
The Cazadores hunt competition that I mentioned earlier was one of these. It was more about the experience than the competition and as a judge I got to watch it all unfold. For those who don't know, the Cazadores Hunt is a day long experience that Cazadores tequila put on for a group of bartenders. The premise is that they are brought together at lunchtime, given a few drinks and some food and then divided into teams. The teams spend the day being ferried from bar to bar and competing at various tasks, some more serious than others! After a few hours of being plied with drinks they take part in the final cocktail competition and the team with the winning drink get a custom built chopper each.
So having just re-read that I can see why my friends shake their heads and laugh that I call this work, but actually I think that days like this are really important. A chance to come together, play and compete and celebrate the winners victory while learning a thing or two about tequila along the way. Just because it happens to be fun, doesn't make it any less important. I have to admit though I've never seen a competition as rowdy as this one was! Brands be warned, hold a competition in Leeds at your own peril... The winning drink was made by a team reinacting a scene from the Exorcist and burning grapefruit while chanting 'the power of agave compels you, the power of agave compels you...'. One competitor climbed on to the bar, got the crowd fired up with an impromptu karioke performance then stage dived over the judges to crowd surf the audience. It was a hell of a comp, but despite the rowdy side I watched in amazement as the teams worked on their drinks, searching out flavour combinations and thinking of creative ways to present their drinks. They may have been letting off steam, but they clearly took the drink making seriously too.
After all competitions are the proving grounds for our bartenders. It's where they stand up and show what they can do. The first time competitor usually has the shakes, forgets and ingredient and doesn't talk about the brand. A bartender with more experience will step up and give it a lot more talk. The experienced pros walk up having rehearsed their speech, having done research into the history of the brand and having given thought to every ingredient in the drink and what they add or why they are there. This isn't just banging a few ingredients together it is showing your peers and the industry what you are capable of.
I asked our frind Victor from LAB what he thought of competitions and he said he had been having a conversation with Paul Mant from Quo Vadis. Paul summed it up by saying that winning a competition gives him the chance to show his parents that he is a professional at what he does. The point is well made, winning a competition shows the world that you take your career as a bartender seriously and want to be the best you can be.
That's my take on it anyway! Now that I think about it there is a third type of competition that bridges the gap between the two. The sort of comp that is fought hard for but also a lot of fun to be involved in. Comps like 42 below's Cocktail World Cup where teams from around the world compete for a chance to battle it out in the finals in New Zealand. This is serious stuff but with a fun brand that knows how to have a good time along the way.
The UK has done well in the past at this particular competition, last year we won the title and the year before we placed second. The heats for the 2010 competition are under way already and team West London dropped us a line to let us know what they have been up to. From what we've seen these boys intend to represent yet again. James from Trailer and Danny and Stu from LAB will be fighting it out trying to get through to the finals and we wish them every success! I've put the drinks that saw them through the heats below and if they make it through the next round we will be following them all the way.
James Wynn-Williams from Trailer Happiness came up with the South Island Iced Tea:
40ml Kiwifruit 42Below
15ml Apple Juice
20ml Chilled Green Tea
20ml Lemon Juice
6 leaves of basil
half a conference pear
Muddle the pear then shake all ingredients with cubed or cracked ice. Strain over cubed ice into a latte glass and garnish with a pear fan
While Danny Winter from Lab won through with his:
Granny’s Swine Flu Stinger
40ML Manuka Honey 42below
20ML Courvoisier VS,
20ML Lemon Juice
7ml Liquour Strega
Blaze With 2 cloves, 2 lemon zests, 2 orange zests.
Put out the Flames and pour through a fine strainer that has been packed with earl grey tea. Serve in a tea cup garnished with 2 sugar cubes on the saucer
finishing the team off was Stuart Fritz also from Lab with his drink:
37.5ml 42Below Feijoa
12.5ml Mandarin Nepoleon
1 whole cooked beetroot
25ml beetroot juice
6 Thai basil leaves (sweet basil)
25ml Lemon Juice
cracked black pepper
2 spoon of Thai basil syrup (or regular gomme is fine)
Place all ingredients in a boston tin, place the tin into a sauce pan filled with water and heat until the basil begins to release its flavour but stop heating before it over powers the drink.
Serve in a glass with a black pepper rim.
In the meantime team West London have been tasked with shamelessly promoting themselves and the 42 below Cocktail World Cup, so please become a fan of them on facebook is.gd/5bZeA if you can. These comps aren't all fun and games... honest!