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Are Awards Ruining Your Favorite Bars?

Winning an award is a euphoric moment. The endorphins kick in as you make your way to the podium. It doesn’t matter if it’s the third-grade spelling bee or the crowning of The World’s Best Bar.

I’ve been there. In 2013, I ran the bar at New York City’s Saxon + Parole when we took home the coveted Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Award for World’s Best Restaurant Bar. The acknowledgement validated the immense dedication that went into reaching the summit. I’m not going to lie—it felt awesome.

But over the years, I’ve watched as bar awards have ballooned into something bigger and more grandiose—almost an industry unto themselves—and I’ve begun to wonder: Is this good? Are awards hurting or helping the bar business?

The relentless quest for awards has been building steadily over the last decade with the proliferation of two major ceremonies: the Spirited Awards, which are presented every July at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, and the October countdown of The World’s 50 Best Bars, compiled by U.K. publication Drinks International.

Saxon + Parole

These are considered the Oscars and Emmys of the bar world, and like those storied traditions, they’ve evolved over time, from friendly pat on the back to frenzied competition, worthy of strategic maneuverings and political jockeying. We call it awards season, and it’s well underway now.

The Spirited Awards started out in 2007 as a tiny ceremony for a couple hundred bartenders and bar owners. Today, it’s a lavish black-tie affair with more than 1,000 guests from all over the globe who compete in 24 broad categories. The Drinks International 50 Best is considered by some the Mount Olympus of the industry.

There are dozens more such lists and awards that percolate from all corners of the globe. All of them have their owns sets of judging guidelines and with them their own controversies. Needless to say, no award, whatever the provenance, will be perfect or please everyone.

Simon Ford at the Spirited Awards (image: Jennifer Mitchell)

Just ask Simon Ford. Since 2010, Ford, who heads up The 86 Co., was the chairman of the Spirited Awards and helped compile the thousands of nominations that pour in each year. He also had the regrettable task of shouldering the dozens of complaints that followed from disgruntled bar people who felt slighted at their omission. Rarely did a “thank you” appear in his inbox.

“For the first several years, the Spirited Awards and 50 Best appeared to be a really nice celebration of some of the best and brightest in our industry,“ says Ford. “Most people were happy for the winners. In recent years, however, it has become a lot more heated. People now lobby and compete. People get nasty about winners and complain a lot. The sentiment is changing.”

Ford stepped down last year and passed the torch to Charlotte Voisey, a well-respected member of the global bar community based in New York. When I spoke with her recently, she hadn’t fielded any angry emails—yet. She did remind me, jokingly, that the final list of nominees had only just come out and might raise a few eyebrows, as it typically does. The winners will be announced in a gala ceremony on July 22. Agony and ecstasy will share equal billing, no doubt.

Dante, a bar I run in New York City, is currently ranked No. 34. Being on that list with so many of my talented peers is one of the great achievements of my career. And there’s no question that it has helped our business.

Jacob Briars is a longtime brand ambassador, now with Bacardí, who has sat on various awards panels over the last decade, including the two big ones mentioned above. “I think we fixed a lot of the problems with the Tales awards,” says Briars. “We made the judging more transparent and have in general made the awards more credible. They aren’t perfect by any means, but we continue to try to improve them each year.”

A lot of the challenges, Briars says, come from sheer logistics. “Maybe the awards themselves are too large,” he says. “And that’s multiplied for international awards. We continue to rely on a panel of judges and hope they are all trying new places and keeping their eyes open.”

One thing’s for certain: Winning a major bar award can have a huge impact on your business. Sean Muldoon, of New York City’s Dead Rabbit, itself the recipient of a small mountain of awards, says that winning big in 2009—taking home The World’s Best Cocktail Menu, The World’s Best Drink Selection and The World’s Best Cocktail Bar for Belfast’s Merchant Hotel—helped push him into the spotlight.

The World’s 50 Best Bars Awards

“Winning these awards was the catalyst for eventually getting to New York,” says Muldoon. “We wouldn’t have made the connections we did and wouldn’t have been financially backed to open The Dead Rabbit without that global recognition. These events help us to stay relevant in an era when competition is fierce.”

Dante

Alex Kratena shared a friendly rivalry with Muldoon and his business partner, Jack McGarry, for several years as The Langham hotel’s Artesian in London was named The World’s Best Bar on four consecutive occasions when he was in charge. He agrees that the awards elevated his career to another level. Both he and his partner, Simone Caporale, have also been crowned International Bartender of the Year at Tales of the Cocktail.

Though they’ve both since left the Artesian, Kratena points out that it was these awards that lead to a steady flow of high-profile gigs. “I am very grateful for all accolades we received,” he says. “They’ve definitely changed our lives and helped our careers. I think it’s not important to win awards, but if you do win, then it’s important to know what to do with them.”

In the same way that vintners tailor wines that “score high” and Hollywood studios time their releases to coincide with Oscar season, are bar owners now opening bars with an eye toward winning awards? And if so, what exactly does it take to create ‘the world’s best bar’?

Charlotte Voisey (image: Jennifer Mitchell)

“It’s a culmination of the small things,” says Muldoon. “Every part of your operation needs to be thought out with the idea of ‘Is this the world’s best?’ In the end, details matter.”

Or as deputy editor of Drinks International, Hamish Smith, puts it: “These awards merely reflect the expert view of the elite of the industry. If you ask the right people, you should get a pretty decent idea of what makes a ‘best bar.’”

“The Artesian in London used to give some customers a free glass of Champagne on arrival,” says Ford. “That is a class move that is going to increase the quality of your experience. Does it help them get noticed as one of the best bars in the world? Of course it does!”

The World’s 50 Best Bars awards started as a poll in a magazine in 2011. When Smith took on the editorship, his role was to make it a global brand. He started by recruiting voters, increasing the academy from 227 to 476 voters (from 56 countries), thereby creating hundreds more of what he calls ambassadors for the brand.

The Dead Rabbit back bar with its Tales of the Cocktail and The World’s 50 Best Bars awards

Now those ambassadors are being courted more than ever. The fact that the judge’s names are published for all to view makes this much easier. I see this as a problem. As a judge myself, I receive the latest cocktail menus and press releases from dozens of bars around the world vying to get on the list. This never happened until very recently. With the standard of bars now at an all-time high, competition is fierce, and bars are doing whatever it takes to stand out from the pack, including gaining favor with judges by luring them out to their region to judge cocktail competitions.

“As The World’s 50 Best Restaurants has grown in influence, we feel it is necessary for the voters to remain anonymous in order to protect against direct targeting by lobbyists,” says William Drew, the group editor and head of W50BB who oversees both 50 Best awards.

But what about anonymity for bar judges? “The World’s 50 Best Bars is much younger, but as the profile and standing of the awards and list become further cemented globally, we will look to introduce anonymity to this discipline as well,” he says.

So it’s possible that in the future, as these awards grow in stature, the playing field will level, leaving bars to spend less time lobbying for attention and more time doing what they do best: serving thirsty guests.

“There’s no way to win these awards without demonstrating exceptional hospitality,” says Bobby Heugel, the owner of several award-winning bars in Houston. “Hospitality is supposed to be an unwavering gesture extended to all guests who walk through a bar’s doors. It isn’t allocated to friends and peers or, more specifically, known judges or journalists. Bars actively monitor voters and influencers to make sure they improve their chances of winning awards by providing uncommon experiences to those individuals.”

So who are these judges and how are they chosen? “Early on, I found that those working for spirit companies make great judges as they have the budgets to travel and visit more bars than most,” says Ford. “What needs to be asked of those brand ambassadors, however, is to remove bias from voting for their favorite accounts, and for the most part, they do. But there are also plenty of writers and consultants that are also judges because they get a lot of international work.”

Jim Meehan, of PDT fame, has won The World’s Best Bar by Drinks International in 2011 and Tales of the Cocktail in 2009. “Many of the judges were my mentors and idols, which made the recognition even more valuable to me at the time,” he says.

Artesian

“When we were recognized as the No. 1 bar on the first Top 50 list, it didn’t get the attention from global media like it does today,” says Meehan. “Ultimately, we don’t work for awards, and I’ve never posted a media clip in the bar or displayed our awards, as I never wanted them to give our staff a false sense of assuredness about what we do. You’re only as good as the last guest experience, and while awards are a really nice pat on the back, they don’t put money in the till or make your drinks taste any better.”

One only has to look at various bars and bartenders’ social media pages to see the game at work. Many tag the #Worlds50BestBars (or something similar) in an effort to campaign for the next round of voting. Jonathan Downey, a pioneer in London’s bar scene whose Milk & Honey was voted The World’s Best Bar in 2009 and 2010, has an opinion on the matter.

“This current obsession with awards is really not healthy, and I hope it changes soon,” he says. “There’s an unseemly clamoring for awards and attention, and it’s at the expense of fun. It’s fundamentally ridiculous to be able to nominate yourself for an award and then embarrassing to be all over social media badgering people to vote for you.”

Simone Caporale, left, and Alex Kratena (image: Jennifer Mitchell)

“We’re supposed to be in this industry to take care of the guests that walk through our doors,” says Heugel. “It’s blatantly clear that a priority for many bars is winning awards. Certainly, that can’t be done without exceptional standards, but having high standards and forming meaningful relationships with guests aren’t necessarily the same animal. The soul is missing in one pursuit and not the other.”

Earlier this year, Agile Media sold W50BB to Britain-based company William Reed Business Media. Drinks International continues as the media partner, with Smith adding: “Growing the entity is a natural step for the brand. William Reed can take it to another level, bringing bars and bartenders closer to the consumer.”

But have they created a monster? Has the bar world gone completely mad in chasing such awards?

Last January, I traveled to London to attend P(our) Symposium, a daylong event that focuses on awards and their place in the industry. It was attended by some of the biggest names in the bar world. Chaired by Meehan, the panel was curated by Kratena and included several other high-profile luminaries such as Drew, Ford, Ryan Chetiyawardana and Zdenek Kastanek.

The Dead Rabbit team with The World’s Best Bars event hosts Tom Sandham, far left, and David Wondrich, far right, at W50BB in London

For hours, we sat around a hotel conference room poking and prodding at the issue, without ever arriving at a clear outcome. After all, we were among those who’d benefited most from awards, who’d seen our careers take off and bank accounts grow in their wake. Was it any wonder that we were a bit hesitant to criticize them harshly?

The prognosis, at the end of the day, was unclear, with one commenter in the audience declaring the whole thing “boring.”

“People are aware that awards can have a big impact on their career,” says Briars when I talked to him months later. “I know bartenders who’ve used awards to get visas or get investors or open businesses. Isn’t that just good business sense?”

But in a business where visibility is tantamount to success, how do bars in smaller markets make enough noise to compete? It’s an issue that Briars has thought about a lot.

Please Don’t Tell

“There is always the problem of bias,” says Briars. “New York and London will typically have a lot of nominees because they’re seen as ‘the world’s cocktail capitals’ and, therefore, tend to have more industry judges, too. Does that mean a good bar can’t be elsewhere? Of course not, but you have to be better at making noise than a venue in a bigger city.

And the explosion of big-budget cocktail competitions such as Bacardi Legacy, Chivas Masters and Diageo’s USBG World Class cannot be ignored when it comes to bringing attention, and judges, to a particular city.

Add to that the continued rise of international bar shows, which also shine a light on these smaller, emerging markets—much like they’ve done in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list—and you have an awards machine that looks to be firing on all cylinders.

“If we didn’t have these awards, what would we replace them with?” asks Briars. “Yelp scoring? Facebook likes? We have an innate need to rank and measure ourselves against our peers, whether in school, career or life. It pushes people to be better and gives them a benchmark for the industry. Why would we want to get rid of awards that recognize the bars and bartenders doing amazing work who might otherwise never get their efforts rewarded?”