By Simon Ogden
The 2016 competition season is in full swing, I can just about feel the breeze from hundreds of tummy butterflies as bartenders from here to…well, everywhere get their game faces on. Hopefully you’ve got a good and trustworthy coach to guide you through the challenges to come, but they’re not easy to find. Ask a dozen grizzled old bartenders for their best piece of advice on winning bartending competitions and in all likelihood you’ll get twelve different bright ideas: develop a strong thesis; balance your acid with your sugar; don’t forget to laser beam your wash line; bring your own ice; no spilling; double shake; reverse dry shake, speak up doublestir, CLEANUPYOURMESSSTANDUPSTRAIGHTCOMBYOURHAIR!
Thanks for the help.
In truth, the only way to win bartending competitions is to do a lot of bartending competitions, but that doesn’t do you much good right now, for the comp staring you in the face. If only there was a silver bullet, one piece of solid advice that can give you the edge you want right now, instead of the ol’ ‘practice makes perfect’ saw. Well, I hope you like good news, because there actually is one chunk of advice you can concentrate on, one little nugget of wisdom that will make the whole thing easier and much, much more fun. And I never hear anyone talking about it, weirdly, even though it’s the one thing that will absolutely make or break you in your competition life. I’ve judged an absolute ton of comps, and every single time this one shiny thing pays off in the winner’s circle, and it’s one particular bartending muscle we can all stand to spend more time working out.
That’s it. Probably so simple we take it for granted, being cool bartender types and all. But your confidence level varies wildly day by day, and it’s bound to take a hit when you show up at the venue and see who you’re competing against and stand behind a strange bar and look out at the expectant crowd and the timer starts and something gets moist. Jameson helps, but there’s something deeper you can be doing to steel your nerve.
The single best coaching tip I can ever offer you is this: schedule a rehearsal. Either the day of or the night before the big day. Gather a small group of your friends and/or co-workers together for fifteen minutes, plonk them in front of your bar, set a timer and go through your presentation three, maybe four times. Line up your products on the bar in front of you, in order, set your tools, articulate your thesis, clearly, from the diaphragm, say thank you then do it again.
But here’s the kicker–and this is very, very important–make it clear to your practice crew that you do not want, nor need, feedback. If you have your mentor or coach there, fine, they and they alone can give notes, but believe me, nothing will get you in your head more than your friends enthusiastically trying to correct every little misstep in your presentation. This is the time and place to mess up, remember that you’re the pro when it comes to this particular thing, all you’re doing right now is getting your ducks in a row. There is no other performative undertaking on the planet that goes unrehearsed, bartending comps should be no different. It’s quite a bit like another night at work, except it isn’t. It’s sweatier. Get ready for it like athletes and musicians do, and tune up.
One final note of advice, come up with your own little pre-presentation ritual to get your energy up. Actors call it the psychological gesture. Evelyn Chick–one of Canada’s competition spitfires–does push-ups in the green room right before she hits the stage. I do exactly this…
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Whatever it is that works for you is right, but get your groove up and when you speak, speak loudly and clearly. You’ll be amazed at how much this grounds you.
You already know how to make a cocktail, you don’t have to worry about that part. Be confident, clear and delightful, and above all else, be more prepared than the rest of them. Because honestly, if it’s not fun, you shouldn’t be doing it. You can make a lot more money doing something that’s not fun, believe me. Make ‘em jealous.