What am I thinking about when I judge an event that calls for a bartender to make a cocktail using specific ingredients, live and directly in front of me?
It seems like a lot to say and even more to imagine but having started in the bartending business as a bar back- that unique factoid permits me to say what’s on my mind- even if I know it’s probably something that you wish you knew before you had me judge your work. That’s ok, I mean no harm and I want you to do better. In fact, just the simple truth that you are doing what you love (at least I hope you are) is good enough for me. Add to that the prize money and the prestige of winning a cocktail competition. The props are even better for me.
I’ve never entered one, probably for good reason- but I have worked behind the stick from the very bottom on up- and that certainly is a qualifier for anyone who writes with an authentic voice these days. It takes a great sacrifice to bar-back when I did this back-breaking task- at 50! Now, only six years later, I can say with great confidence if you find that I’m judging your cocktail, there are a couple of things that you should be doing. So, compartmentalize them and make them valid for you and what you are trying to achieve. On to the juicy ones, the ones that make me say, this is someone to watch at a cocktail competition.
1. No matter what, put a glass of water in front of the judges.
Don’t ask why- just do it. Maybe you want me to fiddle with something other than my pen or my iPhone? If you do it, I’ll know you were paying attention. Next?
2. Bring your own glassware.
Where were you when all those big estates were being cleared out, when those really cool coupes and hand-cut crystal rocks glasses were selling for 50 cents apiece? If you bring your own glassware, I’ll know you were paying attention in class. Next?
3. It’s the ice darn it!
If you are in the NY Metro Area and you are not having your ice delivered to the venue, that is just sloppy. Make sure that your ice is perfect. Cheater ice will not get my attention and it will go to show that the guest is secondary to making money. Cheater ice is an immediate fail. I need someone to do some basic detective work, find out about the ice. Is it from a Kold Draft- or the like machine? This is a restaurant show, so it hazards a guess that the ice will be a serious component to the event. If not, bring your own ice. If you cut your own ice before the competition I’ll be very happy. It will show to me that you were paying attention in class. Next?
4. The spirits themselves, used in your mixed drinks.
Unless you are sponsored by a giant liquor company, you should be working with your local craft spirit distilleries. Are you working with local craft spirits? If not, why not? They are the ones that are passionate about flavor and the quality of the ingredients. Not just mega-liquor company who rules the roost and your bar. I seek the misfits of the distillery world, the former skateboarders turned distillers who know how to twist up my palate with flavor, not cold hard cash. Think about it. Who is doing local Vermouth in your area? Or perhaps an Amaro or alcoholic/herbal syrup? Next?
5. Syrups, Shrubs, Bitters.
I wrote an entire book on Bitters, Shrubs and Syrups. It’s so easy to impress me with Bitters, acidulated vinegars and broiled or roasted fruits, woven into deeper, sour flavors. I don’t like sweet cocktails and when I was teaching a Master Class on Rum at the Moscow Bar Show, I was asked to make a series of ‘cocktail whisperer’ drinks for the Russians. The looks on their faces was so priceless when I turned out drinks that were not sweet! Sure, I used a touch of simple syrup, in this case the lovely Saffron Simple Syrup from Royal Rose up in Maine. But not a candy sweet concoction of sweet, sweeter nor sweetest. I just don’t do things this way. And you shouldn’t either. What qualifies me to tell you that? Perhaps it was doing that bar-back job. Oh, that one. When I get confused that any given drink is just sugar on sugar on sugar- and you fail the lesson, that is the reason. Please, remember that it doesn’t have to be sweet to catch my attention.
6. Stainless steel drink straws/stirrers.
I love them, especially if they are frozen cold out of the freezer. The way they stick to my lip and force me to drink. I dig them. Bamboo stirrers are a plus for skewering those Luxardo cherries that I just love- hint, hint.
7. Fresh Juices.
You’d better be using them. FRESH JUICES- I judged a cocktail event recently, someone used canned peaches. Oh no, not canned peaches.
8. Bitters other than Angostura.
On any given store shelf there is a groaning plethora of bitters. Step away from the tried and true and experiment with the intriguing and the memorable!
9. Really great seltzer, or tonic or soda pop…
Or whatever it is that you finish your drinks with. Charge your own seltzer. Make your own tonic syrup, charm me!
10. Roasted fruits in a muddle.
What? You’ve never roasted fruits and muddled them? Class Dismissed!
If you pay attention to even half of my ‘suggestions’ above, I’ll know that you read the article and were hoping to catch my attention by doing better. You don’t have to do anything else at a cocktail competition but be yourselves. Just being a bartender is an incredible commitment. It’s a job that requires a mindful approach, like my friend Gary Regan stresses, be a part of the place- where you are in the universe. Approach the bar like a philosopher approaches the past or a scientist postulates the future. The bar is a place of enlightenment and humility. And smile while you work, sure your job is a serious one- but it should be one that is fun and shows your confidence in your task. If your bartending gig is a drag, maybe you’d be more comfortable in a bank? I did that too, for twenty years. Much more comfortable behind the stick- more colorful too!