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Mixology as Spectator Sport: What's the Deal With Bartending Competitions?

11/18/2013 05:35 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

It's a sultry evening on the Strip in Las Vegas. On a hotel rooftop more than 40 bartenders are mixing cocktails, in shifts of seven or eight at a time, for pairs of attentive drinkers as a crowd of several dozen mills about. TV cameras hover nearby while a DJ drowns out the bartenders' banter. As each mixologist lifts his shaker and does his or her requisite signature shake, usually accompanied by a goofy, slightly self-conscious smile, the crowd erupts with hoots and cheers. Not that they'll get to drink the finished product. For this is the semifinals of Bombay Sapphire's "Most Imaginative Bartender" competition, and only the judges get to taste them.

Say the words "bartending competition" and old-school mixologists and the barflies who love them may shake their heads sadly and say, "So it's come to this." Enthusiasts may excitedly say, "So it's come to this!" Personally, I say, "Huh?" When did bartending become a spectator sport? And how? And for heaven's sake, why?

Of course, the easy answer is that it's all about the bottom line. Cocktails and the people who make them have gained respectability and stature over the last several years. It only makes sense, therefore, that drink would sidle up alongside food in the high-profile, big-money, content-starved world of media hype. And there are few better ways to do that than to pit bartender against bartender in various mixological showdowns for the ages. While there hasn't been a Top Chef-like breakthrough TV show about bartending, series like On The Rocks and Bartender Wars -- not to mention the GQ Network's coverage of the Most Imaginative Bartender competition, America's Bartender -- are intent on making stars of the men and women "behind the stick."

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Competitions are a nice way for bartenders to get a little glory, an addition to the resumé and some frequent flier miles. As Bombay VP Peter Wijk told me, "It's a great way for us to give something back to the bartending community." While, of course, earning goodwill and getting publicity for the brand in the process. If you think that sounds like so much malarkey, more than one brand CEO agrees with you -- I've been told by various boozy higher-ups (off the record, natch) that they find competitions crass, playing to the lowest common denominator... bullshit, in other words.

But if you look closer, it's not all bullshit. Brand-sponsored competitions are regulated by the United States Bartending Guild (USBG) and the International Bartenders Association, two established and distinguished organizations. They establish, and enforce, pretty strict guidelines for each competition. Glassware, the size of the cocktails, the spirits used to make them, equipment and more are all regulated, and bartenders can be -- and are -- penalized if they go outside the rules.

And while the bartenders who compete seem to have fun, and have a real sense of camaraderie with each other even during the competitions, they take the events very seriously. Take Christian Sanders, a co-owner of Evelyn Drinkery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, who finished a heartbreaking second in two Bombay Sapphire competitions, at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans and in Las Vegas. When I asked him if he'd been happy with his strong finishes or if winning mattered to him, he said, "It totally matters to me. Especially when I feel my drink was on a whole other level from the winning cocktail. I know there's technical rules that should always be involved, and there should always be certain judging criteria, but where do the points go for best tasting and most imaginative drink?... I didn't go there to get second. I was there to represent how I feel Bombay Sapphire should be represented."

Trent Simpson, a San Francisco-based bartender who's both competed in and judged competitions, said, "There's a lot more competition than you might think. You'll see [the competitors] post-morteming every little thing -- what they did wrong, if they even spilled a drop. They'll bitch if they were given the wrong glassware."

It's not just the prettiest faces, or the most loquacious, or the bartenders with the most eye-catching shakes, who win the competitions. The USBG sees to that. I asked Bombay Sapphire Brand Ambassador (and competition judge) Gary Hayward if choosing the best representative for his brand ever played into how he judged the drinks. He strenuously denied it. "There's times where I've had somebody questionable win the competition, and I'm thinking to myself, well, that's not the best person for the brand. But following the judging criteria, and being totally transparent, you've got to think about the credibility of the competition. I can't have on my brand cap all the time. It needs to be down to the drink."

And what is the deal with the drinks? Bartending competitions have not spawned a whole lot of trendsetting or well-known cocktails (one of the few is the Long Island Iced Tea, created for a competition in the early '70s). Despite the obvious talent of the bartenders, having to create a cocktail that stands out from a whole bunch of other mixed drinks, and which has to make its mark in the sip or two that the judges will allot to it, is not necessarily a formula for mixological greatness. At competitions where I've actually been allowed to taste the cocktails (only judges do the tasting at most of them), I've found that a surprisingly large percentage of the drinks simply don't work. A still larger number fail the "Would I want to drink an entire one of these, let alone order a second, at a bar?" test.

Tom Colicchio, chef and TV personality extraordinaire who was a celebrity judge at the Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender competition, agreed: "I think that, ultimately, whether it's food or whether it's a cocktail, it's got to be delicious, not something that is cool. And you see it now with food, and you see it in cocktails, everybody's out trying to make the cool thing as opposed to the good thing, the delicious thing. They think judges are seduced by that. And we're not. We're just looking for delicious."

The winning cocktail at the Most Imaginative Bartender competition, the Queen Victoria by Miami's Julio Cabrera, successfully straddled the cool/delicious divide. In addition to Bombay Sapphire, it employs lemon juice, St-Germain elderflower liqueur and, I quote, "cucumber-mint syrup with pink Himalayan salt and black peppercorn." What did pink Himalayan salt bring to the drink that any other salt would not have? Well... this is why I'm not a competition-winning bartender (here's video of the victorious Mr. Cabrera, as seen on the GQ Network series America's Bartender).

But bartending competitions are not judged on drinks alone. As Trent Simpson put it, "There's the craft of the bartender, but now it's the visual. The perfectly coiffed mustache, the vests, the perfect pour, the shake, the serve. It's like theater -- you have to use every tool in your kit." Cabrera himself agreed. "People have to try a good cocktail, but also see a good show behind it. Why you're using it, the way you use it. This jacket, for example, I designed myself in Mumbai. I went there and designed my own jackets with a special tailor." It did look pretty swanky, I must admit, even if it didn't make the drink itself taste better.

Spirits brands of all stripes have gotten on board with competitions, from companies as big as the mighty booze colossus Diageo (Johnnie Walker, Tanqueray, Ketel One, etc.) to smaller, lesser-known brands like Auchentoshan single malt whisky. However, there are some brands that buck the trend. Russian Standard vodka did some great themed competitions in recent years, like "Emotion In A Glass" (the winner was "Passion"). But in 2013 they decided to take another route and sponsor an "Incredible Pursuits" competition which had nothing to do with cocktails or bartending. "We wanted to support people who were not necessarily bartenders," said Russian Standard CEO Leonid Yangarber, "but who share that passion that we have to be the absolute best they can be. I think that really represents who we are and what we do."

Tres Agaves tequila, meanwhile, focused on competitions like the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge, sponsored by F. Paul Pacult's Ultimate Beverage Challenge, where cocktails take a back seat to the spirits with which they're made. All the cocktails use the exact same ratios of mixers, with only the spirits differing. "That was just amazing for us," Tres Agaves owner Barry Augus told me. "I think bartending competitions are great, don't get me wrong. But the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge [where Tres Agaves won numerous awards in the tequila/mezcal category] was really great in helping us to get our name out there, because the focus was on the spirits, not the cocktails."

In the end, though, bartending competitions aren't going anywhere, for better or worse. And the upside -- increased attention to, publicity about, and respect for the bartending community and well-made cocktails in general -- trumps the silliness factor. If I learned anything on my journey, it's that I should probably just lighten up, enjoy the spectacle, and of course have another drink.