Behind the Bar The Business of the Bar

What Winning a Bartending Competition Can Mean to a Career

Sofia Varano

Bartending competitions are big business these days. Just about every major liquor brand sponsors some sort of confab with its name prominently plastered across the marquee. Bombay Sapphire holds its Most Imaginative Bartender finals every year in London. Diageo World Class staged its most recent finals in Berlin this past October. Bacardí Legacy brought its regalia to Mexico City last year.

For these massive companies, there’s an obvious return on investment: promoting relationships with the tastemakers who push their products on the front lines. But for the bartenders themselves, what does it mean to win on such a big stage? The ego boost is undeniable. But is there a deeper, more lasting significance when you emerge victorious? There’s only one way to know for sure. Let’s ask some winners.

  • Carley Gaskin, Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender Winner 2018

    Gaskin at the Bombay Sapphire gala.

    “Bartending competitions allow you to build your personal brand and help hone public speaking skills, media content and relationships with the brands you will be representing. It also lets you experience cultures and places by traveling with the brands both before and after the competition.

    “For me personally, I started a business at the same time I was competing in the Most Imaginative Bartender competition, which gave me invaluable access to media and professional connections that would have taken me years to gain. I watched my peers compete and was inspired by the level of artistry created and constantly pushed myself to learn as much as I could to pursue a career in bartending. Competing in MIB was always the goal for me, but to have won, that’s a dream come true.”

  • Ryan Wainwright, Bacardí Legacy Nationals Champion 2017

    Wainwright at Bacardí Legacy.

    “I am living proof of how competitions can help your career in certain ways. When I opened Terrine [in Los Angeles], I had been bartending for almost nine years, and no one knew who I was except for industry people and my regulars. It was a stage I used to show people L.A. could play in the national scene. I entered into Most Imaginative Bartender and Bacardí Legacy because they highlighted the bartender and their creativity over other skills. I did not want to do competitions that were rigid or the antithesis of my style or with brands that I did not believe in.

    “Those two competitions allowed me to show on a national and global scale the things that I was doing on a daily basis behind my bar. If you’re the real deal, competitions are that boost or that push out the door. Competitions are a bit like a piece of paper: It's nothing on its own. But in the hands of one person, it’s an origami swan; in the hands of another, it’s a detailed drawing; in the hands of another, it’s a poem; in the hands of another, it’s a stick figure; and in the hands of another, it’s in the trash.”

  • Sother Teague, Edible Manhattan Hendrick’s Gin Winner 2014


    “I don’t know that winning competitions (I’ve won several) had any significant direct impact on my career. However, the networking opportunities were/are numerous. Competing with peers brings out the best in everyone. Plus, the opportunity to put drinks in front of judges and established members of the community breaks down barriers and makes one feel more comfortable around luminaries. And they remember you later and that opens doors as well. And it’s great [to be recognized]. There’s exposure, trophies, swag, cash, trips! What’s not to like? It builds confidence and often your bank account.

    “The three biggest ones that I won or placed in were the [“Show Me the Proof”] Louis Royer Force 53 Cognac competition, where I won a weeklong trip to Cognac, France; at Edible Manhattan Hendrick’s Gin, I won $5,000; I came in fourth in the U.S. for Diageo World Class. I won some great tools and swag. World Class is, well, world-class. Huge competition, very serious.”

  • Erik Delanoy, Bringing The Macallan to New Heights Winner 2017


    “I competed and placed in the Bringing The Macallan to New Heights competition in 2017. The prize (for several bartenders) was a flight down to Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans on a private jet. The trip also included a helicopter ride to Teterboro airport and Uber black car service to our hotels or AirBnBs upon landing. This competition not only gave me exposure to a life experience that I may have never been exposed to otherwise, but I also walked away with a number of new friends and ultimately my girlfriend.

    “Subsequently, I had the opportunity to continue to work with the PR agency representing The Macallan on several projects developing cocktails and bartending events, which helped my career by putting some cash in my pocket but also by allowing me the opportunity to network with master distillers and executives within such an iconic and globally recognized brand. I think that can only really positively impact a bartender’s career trajectory in the long run.”