Article By: Liza Weisstuch
With more and more brands and extensions hitting the market every month, it’s safe to say that, now more than ever, shelf space is an extremely valuable commodity. Then, of course, there’s the little matter of winning the hearts and minds of bartenders, who are ultimately the best ambassadors a brand can depend on. Within the last few years, a marketing tactic has grown in visibility and popularity, and liquor companies are employing it to great effect. Cocktail competitions are now a common occurrence around the country, especially when it comes to brands
that are new to the market. Boston is holding its own on a local level, with some contests garnering floods of entries. Additionally, area bartenders are showing a strong Boston representation at national finals.
The brands prompt bartenders to invest intellectual energy in their product, which in turn often leads to an enduring commitment to the brand and bigger pushes at their respective bar. Bartenders, meanwhile, have a forum within which – not to mention an incentive – to create new cocktails. Additionally, the competitions validate their knowledge and creativity. Money or exotic trips are often given away as prizes and, as not a few can attest, the competitions can be fun experiences. With contests ranging from rigorously academic to light-hearted and fun, bartenders of every level and style and from a wide range of bars end up converging to flaunt their mixological skills.
Hendrick’s Gin held a particularly creative event over the summer at Green Street in Cambridge. Participants in the Gin Beantown Bartender Battle were required not only to devise a cocktail that highlighted one of the botanicals in the spirit, but they also had to come to the contest armed with a limerick to accompany, and in small part explain, their concoction. (full disclosure this author sat on the judging panel.)
“Boston and Hendrick’s have a great relationship. I wanted to push that creativity further and get people to think a little deeper about what’s in Hendrick’s and look at it from a brand new angle,” said Charlotte Voisey, Mixologist for William Grant’s Hendrick’s. She spearheaded the development of the premise and rules of the competition. “Whenever I create a cocktail, I always analyze the base spirit first to find something in it to pick up to showcase. I wanted people to go back and taste Hendrick’s again, get reacquainted with the gin and find something in there they haven’t found before and use that to create a cocktail, instead of using the wonderful but predictable cucumber,” she said.
The limericks, she added, were incorporated for the “humor factor”. “Everything from a marketing point of view is done with the objective to cause a smile on people’s face. On a serious note, I wanted to do the limerick to remind everyone that bartending and cocktails should be about fun. As mixology grows as an industry, there’s a lot of education, a lot of discipline needed to learn the craft. But I also think it’s important that as we grow on that side, we remind ourselves that it should be fun. As bartenders, we’re also in the entertainment industry.”
Brian Farnell, on-premise manager in Massachusetts for William Grant, said that since Hendrick’s doesn’t spend a lot of money on ads and billboards, efforts to get the word out have always been more focused on bartenders. Even though the contest seemed like a logical way to step up bartenders’ involvement with the brand, he was still surprised at the level of positive initial response. “The brand is at the point where bartenders spread enthusiasm to consumers instead of consumers just finding it on their own,” he said. “That’s why it’s so well received – people try it because their bartender made a great drink with it. We figured: let’s go right to bartenders with an event. We thought the enthusiasm is at the bartender level. They’re ambassadors to the brand where they play with it and get creative with it. I was worried we weren’t going to get a lot of response, but we got plenty. A lot of people put a lot of effort into it. There were many there who don’t necessarily work in the high profile cocktail bars. Yes, we got the usual suspects, the frontrunners in the city’s cocktail scene, but there were so many other people with a major passion for Hendrick’s who wanted to get involved.” The contest ended seeing finalists who made drinks that highlighted the spirit’s lesser celebrated botanicals.
“Everyone knows Hendrick’s for the cucumber and rose petal, but we were really looking for people who took it a little deeper and looked at how to showcase, say, the meadowsweet or coriander,” said Brian. “The really interesting cocktails were able to use other ingredients. I was pleased with the enthusiasm. We promoted it with an email blast and I did a lot of just walking into bars and handing out invitations. You could just see the wheels turning as they read the invitation, see them cooking up something in their minds.”
Bacardi USA has also held competitions and their recent contest has been, quite literally, extreme. The World Cup, which was co-sponsored by the United States Bartenders’ Guild, involved their recently acquire 42 Below, a New Zealand vodka. A Boston mix-off was held back in 2OO7 and finalists were sent off to New Zealand. The competition’s concept was a useful way of inspiring bartenders to think creatively about how to integrate 42 Below’s unconventional flavors, like manuka honey and kiwi, into cocktails. The Cocktail World Cup finals were held in New Zealand in September and involved bartenders making drinks while bungee jumping and riding in speedboats. (Like I said: extreme.)
But spectacle aside, the ultimate goal was to get bartenders thinking about the product on a long-term level, which Louanne Allen, regional on-premise manager, said they accomplished. “People really put their personality into their cocktail. They embraced the flavor – one bartender dressed up as a bee to present a manuka honey vodka cocktail. They had a lot of fun with it. When a bartender is involved in a competition they go all the way and it makes a big difference,” said Louanne. “Often the drink ends up on a bar’s menu. The bartender who created it will promote it because that’s what they know. Bartenders are the gatekeepers and when they create a cocktail, they take ownership. If customers come in and, as often is the case, have no idea what they want to drink, they look to the bartender to suggest a cocktail. That’s going to be the suggested cocktail and that’s a huge win for us.” She added that the premium is on the experience. “When we do these types of competitions, bartenders don’t just get an education, they experience the brand – it stays with them longer than going in a classroom and standing through a training and all that.”
Since it’s inherent that contests get bartenders into an innovative, creative frame of mind, it’s an especially useful tactic for brands in smaller categories – spirits typically connected with a limited number of traditional cocktails. Cachaça, for instance, is generally associated with the caipirinha, but Kevin Beardsley, Boston-based CEO of Beija, a premium cachaça, has found contests a useful means of not only introducing the spirit to bartenders, but getting them to reconsider the one-dimensional association. They held a contest in Rhode Island in November and have one planned for Boston in the spring. “We held the contest because with a category like cachaça, bartenders only really know the caipirinha. They tend to default to the caipirinha style and we want to move the category past that and encourage people to think about the spirit in different ways. We found people were really excited. They still worked with fruits in the contest but were moving toward using them differently. We think we can go past that with the category.”
One of the most elaborate, extravagant, all-encompassing contests on the circuit is the St. Germain Can-Can Classic, which had its finals at Employees Only, a cocktail bar in New York, last June. To qualify, competitors first won a recipe contest online, which had winners selected each month for a year. Misty Kalkofen and Ben Sandrof, both of whom now tend bar at Drink in South Boston, were among those who competed. Beyond the common cocktail competition, which may be like swimming a single stroke race, the Can-Can is better described as a medley-style showdown that required bartenders to show their fluency in all spirits. And they had to do some of it impromptu. Before a panel of judges that included the owners of Employees Only and renowned mixologist and author Dale DeGroff, contestants had to make their drink that was previously chosen as the monthly winner. Other components of the competition included blind tastings, a timed exercise in creating a new cocktail based on the blind tasting, and a written product knowledge test. Ben, who tended bar at No. 9 Park at the time, ended up winning and taking home $5OOO in prize money.
“It was a contest to find the best of the best – not just who creates the best St. Germain cocktail, but who is the best bartender who uses St. Germain well,” said Kate Palmer, New England brand manager for Cooper Spirits’ St. Germain. “When they found out who the judges would be, they put their game face on, they knew it was real. Our contest separates the men from the boys, the professionals from the dabblers. People took a lot of pride in their skills in general. In a way, competing is validation. It says ‘I’m exceptional at my job and it’s recognized’.”
Among those who competed, she said, “there’s brand loyalty now more than ever. All participants had loyalty before. Rob Cooper’s passion and commitment and how they launched this product got people interested. There’s always a St. Germain cocktail on their menu at their bar now because of that contest. Cocktail competitions are a great way to get people excited about a product and thinking outside the box because they’re trying to be creative and get comfortable with it. It seals the deal when a bartender gets comfortable with a product on their own. They take ownership in the brand when that happens.”
In addition to the promise of prizes, even the most elite bartenders acknowledge that the competition experience is a learning experience. “I think people, more so now than ever, still don’t understand the artistry that takes place,” said Misty, who’s president of the Boston chapter of Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails (LUPEC). “They see bartenders as someone making a drink that they’ve known for years, but don’t understand the creativity aspect. A lot of us spend a lot of time developing cocktails, putting new flavors together and using fresh ingredients, and that’s something that’s really comes out in competitions. You want to use trends from the culinary world, you want to highlight the most recently available spirits to show you’re on the edge of that. Some people use molecular mixology and techniques as well.”
Of the Can-Can Classic finals, she says, “I was blown away watching people build drinks. Not everyone understands how complex it can be when you talk about using eggs or foams or different shakers for different drinks – little things like that. One of the competitors, from the Violet Hour in Chicago, used two different shakers. In one Cobbler shaker he created something that would have been a meringue. He created a foam in another shaker that he layered on top. It highlights the artistry of creating drinks, that there’s so much more to it than throwing stuff in a shaker and pouring it out quickly. I never thought of using two shakers to make a drink. It inspires you to think about things in a new way. All the people we were competing with were sharing ideas and techniques and products and service.”
For all of the benefits these contests yield, there is one major sticking point. While a bartender aims to create the most attention-grabbing, well-crafted balanced cocktail, it sometimes involves using ingredients or techniques that might not be practical to use or execute on a busy Saturday night. Misty notes, “A competition leads to showcasing high technique and talented bartenders and spirits knowledge, but one of the points from Employees Only made that day was: how many can I make when we’re 4O-deep at the bar? They’re great and wonderful, but it doesn’t represent what happens on a typical night.”
Some might argue that the whole notion of competing is kind of wonky, but the fact is that a certain level of scholarship as well as craftsmanship goes into a serious competitor’s work, which can only continue to raise the bar in the industry.