Nate Brown returns this week to take issue with the often costly, crass and conceited world of cocktail competitions.
Walking into a bar and trying to choose what to drink has become a game of chance. Menus are caught between the esoteric and the boring. Back bar shelves are at the point of collapse with every new gin and third-party-sourced rum. The tyranny of choice is palpable.
Imagine, however, that you’re the producer trying to squeeze onto the shelf like a baby pigeon on a shit-covered statue, screaming “Pick me! Pick me!”. Because, once upon a time, you felt the romantic lure of getting your hands dirty, of stepping away from your cog-in-the-machine 9-to-5 desk job and into the soulful world of creation. You’ve bought a still, you’ve filled in your paperwork with HMRC and passed all the inspections. You’ve smelled a hundred different exotic botanicals and imagined awe-inspiring stories of where they came from (they came from a shipping container, mate). Eventually, you make your first batch. You’re so proud that you put your child’s drawing on the label. You have achieved the wholesome life you always dreamed of. Looking over at the pallet of boxed up bottles, it dawns on you. Now what?
How do you recoup some of the life savings and family-borrowed cash that you’ve ploughed into this little project? Suddenly, it all begins to feel a little self-indulgent, doesn’t it?
Fear not, intrepid soul. There are dozens and dozens of brand management agencies on hand. “Sell bottles?”, they’ll chortle, “We’ll do more than that, we’ll build your brand so large you won’t need to worry about selling bottles!”. OMG, you’ll think, I’m going to be the next Sipsmith.
And, sure enough, the agency will tell you that the key to success is to engage with bartenders. These guys and gals on the front line are the power. They are the trusted voices, with the power to recommend, the power to dismiss, they are the proletariat of booze. “Fabulous,” you’ll scream, “how do we get them on board?”
And lo, you’ll be begging, borrowing and stealing to magic up a marketing budget to no doubt run a cocktail competition that’ll engage every bartender in the land with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime prize. You poor, poor sod.
Because there are various problems with this format. Not least, competitions by definition make more losers than winners. Not exactly the lasting impression you want your brand to make, is it?
Secondly, the practicalities of organising and hosting a competent nationwide cocktail competition are fraught with difficulty. The hours spent in encouraging the lazy, I’ve-got-nothing-to-prove (read: ‘My ego can’t take the bashing) attitudes of a large number of bartenders are enormous. The groundwork requires the establishment of relationships, plenty of smoke being blown up certain sun-deprived areas, hundreds of unanswered emails and missed deadlines.
Bartenders don’t like to be hassled. This does not fit with their personas.
Thirdly, there’s finding a suitable venue. This is the true hallmark of the prestige of the operation. Get one of the most highly regarded venues to host and you’ll attract a higher quality of entrants, and also a hugely expensive bill for the space.
Plus, you’ll be throwing stock around left, right and centre to encourage experimentation. ‘You want to try a Szechuan pepper infusion? Here, use my gin. Then throw it away.’
Then, of course, is the judging. How bloody contentious. Who do you get? How much will they charge, if at all? And how, oh how, do you get them to judge impartially and kindly, without favouritism to their mates? Because I’m sorry to say, there are very, very few cocktail competitions ran without fixing: skewed to favour the glamorous bar, to reward sales volumes or the weight the name carries in the industry. There should be a scoring criterion rewarded for zeitgeist. Bars operate in a microcosm of local celebrity associations. It’s all nonsense. On more than one occasion I’ve been privy to the judges’ final deliberations, discrediting entrants based on the bar they work in, and crediting their mates, regardless of the quality of the drink or presentation. It’s a con, folks.
Then, of course, is the quality. In theory, a huge prize should attract a high level of drinks and presentations. But what happens when none of them are any good? It’s an Olympic scoring system. Even I’d win gold in the 100 meters if all the other competitors fell over.
In the end, the result of the cocktail competition might be a whole host of disgruntled, bitter bartenders, and a few select winners, who have zero influence on the products stocked in their bar, and even less ability to present your product in the best light. Money well spent? I think not.