Drambuie Nail or Fail Bartender Showdown in San Francisco, photo by Gwen Rogers

Bartenders: 10 Tips For Winning a Cocktail Competition

We recently had the opportunity to serve on a panel of judges for a cocktail competition in the city of San Francisco. Now, having participated in such competitions in the past ourselves, we were fully aware of the time and energy bartenders spend preparing for these. And for what? In some cases, little more than some respect and notoriety. These competitions provide a break from the grind of nightly service and the opportunity to create something original — and be recognized for it. And then of course there is the occasional trip to Peru.

So we didn’t take our responsibility lightly. But now that we were on the other side of the stick, we learned a few things that judges look for. So bartenders, take note:

  1. Be excited to be there. It seems obvious, but avoid seeming like you don’t really care. This isn’t a blind date. No points are awarded for nonchalance. Smile, for godssake.
  2. Serve your drink in the glassware that will suit it best. Saying  that you intended to serve your drink in a Bell jar, but then serving it in a rocks glass means the drink is served in a rocks glass. Period.
  3. If the competition is being sponsored by one liquor or liqueur (as most of them are), for heaven’s sake, highlight that spirit. Don’t drown it out by incorporating a competing product (for example, using St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram when Drambuie is the sponsor) or by using so many things that the spirit is simply lost. They want you to create a drink that showcases their spirit.
  4. You wouldn’t pair a strawberry tart with a strawberry daiquiri just because they have the same ingredients. A cocktail is no different. Avoid monotone flavors and instead look for contrast. “You wouldn’t believe how many bartenders make this mistake,” says Anthony Caporale, the Brand Ambassador for Drambuie, after tasting a cocktail that combined pureed apple with baked apple bitters and cinnamon. It wasn’t bad but I would have preferred a slice of apple pie and a glass of Bourbon.
  5. Look to classic drinks for inspiration. A cocktail doesn’t have to be out there to be creative. Start with the basics, think about what the spirit has been traditionally aligned with and go from there. For example, one successful drink used the traditional Irish coffee as an inspiration for a cocktail that included Drambuie, Firelit coffee liqueur and Amaro. Sweet, bitter and delicious.
  6. Avoid amateur mistakes: you’re a professional, you know better. But maybe you have developed bad habits or you’re nervous in front of the judge. For example:
  7. Use the right tool for the right job. Use a strainer instead of doing that back and forth thing with the shaker. “That is such a club thing,” says Caporale, unimpressed.
  8. If you’re going to rim the glass, use the zest, not the pith side of the lemon rind (yes, someone did this). Likewise, peel your lemon zest over the cocktail.
  9. Don’t overfill a martini glass. When someone, especially a judge, picks up your drink, their first impression should not be how it feels on their wrist (or how it looks on their sleeve).
  10. Have fun out there and good luck.

Photos courtesy Drambuie/ by Gwen Rogers.