Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

The Good and Bad of Cocktail Competitions

They can change a bartender’s life, but are they corrupting the industry?

Bartending competitions illustration
Image: Liquor.com / Lauren Rebbeck​

Performing well in a cocktail competition has become one of the fastest ways a bartender can achieve great fame and recognition in the industry. Beyond bragging rights, winners often take home a chunk of cash and, more importantly, coveted high-profile opportunities such as brand ambassadorships and consulting gigs. Especially at the highest levels of major international competitions like Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender or Diageo World Class, merely entering the finals can catapult local talent onto the global stage. 

For an increasingly globalized cocktail community, this is largely a good thing. Bartenders from lesser-known and underrepresented cocktail scenes can bring attention to their hometowns and bars. Competitions, especially local and regional ones, can identify rising stars worthy of notice. Brands are able to more effectively understand and reach new pools of talent. And beyond the obvious marketing benefits, from original recipes to free advertising, many competitions are just fun well-funded industry parties. 

But the competition space has drawn significant criticism within community networks including various USBG chapters and cocktail-focused Facebook groups, much of it involving an industry-wide lack of transparency. 

Lack of Communication

For one, poor organization and communication means that judges (who often are themselves bartenders or bar owners) are not always given clear metrics and standards for evaluating a drink or contestant. Oftentimes, contestants are not given feedback after the judging process—a missed opportunity to teach bartenders how they can improve. Then there’s the process itself: Typically, a bartender presents an original drink with a rehearsed presentation. Sometimes, as with Bacardí Legacy, there’s also a stage in which the bartender must offer their plan for promoting the cocktail through a campaign. 

“What I’d like to see more of is the framers of the competition making sure each judge has a complete picture of what exactly we’re judging,” says Sother Teague, a frequent judge on the New York City competition circuit and the beverage director at Amor y Amargo. “Oftentimes, I sit on a panel and it feels like we’re each scoring differently. It seems like a lot of work goes into the making of the competition, yet the judging is an afterthought. Bartenders currently have little say as each competition is run differently from others—it’s not like a sport where the rules are the same. One day, you’re playing basketball; tomorrow, it’s cricket.” 

On an even darker note, many bartenders believe that major cocktail competitions have become platforms of rampant nepotism and greed, with brands paying lip service to the integrity of the process while shamelessly seeking out a winner based on their social media following and industry connections. Rather than stay true to the mission of a competition, they say, the brand is looking solely for a cash cow whose audience and following they might leverage

“Just be transparent about the purpose of the competition,” says Trish Rossiene, an NYC bartender and the founder of International Cocktail Consultants. “Yes, competitions are clearly for marketing. But is it also because the brand values education and opportunity or wants to highlight an unknown talent? Most of the time, it’s marketed as educational but in reality is used to repay someone who has a lot of influence or buying power.” 

Addressing Diversity

Beyond outright favoritism, Rossiene adds that many competitions suffer from a lack of diversity, particularly when it comes to the judges’ table. In ignoring this, she argues, brands undermine their stated goal of reaching diverse and varied consumers and talents alike. “It’s usually the same three people or a semi-celebrity who isn’t judging based on the same criteria the contestants were instructed to work with. Judging panels are very rarely diverse, not just in race or culture but also socio-economically or talent-wise in terms of bartenders from all types of establishments.” 

The fact is that competitions are now a staple of the drinks industry and when done right are a totally valid way for a rising star to get some extra shine. In smaller or emerging markets, particularly, competitions are a fantastic opportunity for bars and bartenders to gain name recognition beyond their current location and also drum up real business at home. Take, for example, the wave of Asian-born bartenders dominating the global stage in recent years, such as Arron Grendon of Bangkok’s Tropic City, who became the first Thai bartender to win at the Chivas Masters Global in 2018. In 2019, Tropic City appeared as a new entry on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list

Puerto Rican bartender Manisha Lopez says that such life-changing implications make competitions all the more alluring for local bartenders in Puerto Rico. She points to the sacrifices—financial and otherwise—that competitors make for a shot at the top spot. 

“Competitions on the island are very important to us as they can lead to opportunities on the island and stateside,” says Lopez. “The truth is that when people compete, the majority take it seriously. They incur a list of expenses well over $100. They request time off from work, and not all employers are supportive or even understanding. People put in a lot of effort, and this is one of the many reasons why people get offended when they see unfairness in judging.”

There are glimmers of hope that brands are listening to and addressing the wishes of the bar community. Teague notes a competition he judged for La Maison & Velier, which featured bartenders crafting drinks on the spot. Scores were calculated through a mix of blind judging by consumers, judging by peers and input from expert judges. “It was a party!” says Teague, who, to Rossiene’s point, has also made it clear that he won’t judge a competition unless his judging peers are a diverse set. “If it’s a bunch of dudes like me, I’ll happily suggest someone else to fill out the lineup and let them judge in my place.” 

Strategy and Selectivity

It’s clear that cocktail competitions can be life-changing. But bartenders must be strategic about the kinds of competitions they want to enter and consider how much time, money and labor they are willing to invest knowing the odds. 

“Don’t enter every competition! Be selective, then be prepared to work hard and psychologically prepared to lose,” says Ms. Franky Marshall, an NYC bartender and educator. “Even when you don't win the ultimate prize, you can still win in other ways. I've made lasting friendships, learned so much and had the opportunity to travel. Remember you’re networking with and being observed by brands who’ll remember your behavior, work ethic and approach. Always be professional.” 

Moe Isaza is one such success story. After winning in the United States finals of Bacardí Legacy, he moved on to the global competition as a finalist. Though ultimately he didn’t win, Isaza is a portfolio ambassador for Bacardí in Boston. Part of his success, he says, was choosing the right competition for his skill set.
“I happen to be good at telling a story and having the audience connect with that story,” he says. “I’ve used that many times behind the bar, so whenever I went on to compete, that was the one element I would ensure would be flawless. Hence, why a competition like Legacy fit me.” 

Though he’s a true believer in the process, Isaza admits that the competition circuit isn’t “always sunshine and rainbows,” pointing to biased judging, the struggle of affording to leave your job for a competition and the overgrown egos of many successful bartenders. But he says it’s rarely the spirit of competition itself that is the cause of turmoil. Indeed, problems aside, the industry has competitions to thank for forging lifelong bonds and a sense of community. 

“The word competition comes from the late Latin competere, which means ‘to strive for the attainment of something alongside another,’” says Isaza. “What that says to me is that we should be competing every day to be better people. Knowledge, technique, presence, speed, network and relationships mean absolutely nothing if we are not striving to attain something positive for our community. So let’s do that.”