by Gez McAlpine
We live in a new golden age of bartending. While we view the era of those like Harry Johnson and Jerry thomas as the Beginning, our forefathers if you will, legends like Dale Degroff and Gary Regan broke through the ice formed through close to 50 years of sub-par drinking culture. The new wave of industry pioneers, Jim Meehan, Julie Reiner and Salvatore Calabrese, have paved the way to the best time that has ever been to be a professional bartender.
Never before have we as bartenders existed in an era so rich in opportunities to develop skills, travel and form bonds with our brethren all around the world. While cocktail competitions are not a subject that has been lacking discussion in this forum. My perception of their purpose has shifted quite dramatically since I first began competing nearly 10 years ago.
It’s no secret that brands invest a lot of time and money into drinks competitions. Millions of dollars are spent every year by alcohol companies to create a platform for which they can lure the best in the business to use their product in ways that inspire and reinvent the potential uses of their juice. In the ideal situation, they can then shift this into something to potentially present to the public consumer to move bottles off shelves.
As the bar has been raised over the years, I’ve definitely had my inner struggles with the dynamic of competition. The importance of theatre, gimmicks, side serves and drinks on boards sometimes taking precedent over what was actually in the glass. After many unsuccessful attempts at fighting against the current, trying to let the flavour of a cocktail speak for itself rather than the bells and whistles, I decided to shift approach to competitions. In the following 4 points, I found great success, not necessarily in the final placings in competition, but in the outcome on my own personal development and betterment as a professional in this industry.
The look on a judges face when you drop an obscure piece of brand knowledge into a presentation is one that truly builds confidence for that tense 20 minutes that judges deliberate (given that everything else was a success!) Use your time in researching showcase brands to better your own knowledge about not just an individual product, but a category as a whole, its county of origin, its culture and its history. The amount of wikipedia rabbit holes you can go down when researching liquor is endless (and let’s be honest, educational procrastination is the best). I was a delinquent in school (not for lack of brains, I just didn’t give a shit). Researching alcohol captivated me, and taught me a lot of valuable lessons about the world. This translates so much further than your 5 minutes in front of a panel. Do your reading, you’ll find your ability to drop knowledge will increase exponentially. This is a quality that is valuable far beyond the realms of the bar.
Build your skill set
Embrace the bells and whistles required in modern competition. Use it as a way to develop skills you wouldn’t necessarily associate with bartending. For me, every competition starts with a trip to Michael’s Arts and Craft, Home Depot, or a thrift shop. Skills from wood burning, carpentry, glass blowing, welding, sewing, photoshop, calligraphy and so on, have formed as a result of learning them for application in a comp. The possibilities are endless. Using competition as a reason to try this stuff might just lead to a new skill that could prove very useful in this career or another!
Of all the comfort zones competition removes you from, one of the most challenging is speaking to large groups, in high pressure situations. This is the most terrifying of them all. Unfortunately the only way you improve this skill, is by doing it a lot! We can make this an easier task of course, preparation is key. Know what you’re going to say, memorize it, whether in note form, long form. short hand or chicken scratch. If you want to win, have a clear message. Practice! It’s nerve racking practicing in front of 2 people, let alone presenting in front of 30, but rehearsing will only make it easier. One of the biggest things I’ve found to help, is doing some sort of short burst, high intensity physical exertion right before your presentation. Pushups, jumping jacks, something along these lines. If you have to, find a bathroom stall and do it there. Increasing your heart rate will distribute adrenaline around the body, which works to curb the dreaded shakes. You want to be able to hold your jigger, right!? It goes without saying, take it easy on the liquor before you’re up. I’ve seen many competitions won off the fault of great bartenders being hammered. Barate Kid is ground zero for bartender shots. You must resist!
Watch other competitors (when allowed)
Wether at a local level or the top 6 of an international competition. There is a lot to be learned from your fellow competitors. Not only may they have found tidbits of valuable information about the brand or category that you may have missed. But you have an opportunity to witness the application of new or unique techniques, which can then be added to your own arsenal. Either of future use in other competitions, or in signature cocktails in your home bar. Of all the teachers I’ve learnt from, none have been more valuable than my peers.
So talk to your colleagues, bounce ideas off of your friends and welcome new bartenders to the scene with open conversations about style and technique. We can all take heed of these bartenders and learn a lot from their creativity as it adds to the hive mind of Canadian bartenders and ultimately raises the bar for all of us to be better at our craft.