A bartender's guide to smashing global cocktail competitions

Kate Malczewski

Kate Malczewski

21 October 2019

What does it take to conquer the most rigorous cocktail competitions in the world? Kate Malczewski spoke with the judges and former champions of Bacardi Legacy and Diageo World Class to learn what they’re looking for in a winner

The landscape of cocktail competitions is changing, with today’s biggest comps requiring more commitment and dedication from bartenders than ever before. The two behemoths of the comp world, Bacardi Legacy and Diageo World Class, are both over a decade old, and each year they’ve added new elements and upped their standards.

For instance, all 53 of the competitors at the 2019 World Class global final took part in no less than five rounds spanning Schiedam, the Isle of Skye and Glasgow, in which they made a variety of serves – rather than whittling the number of contestants down for semi-final rounds, as in years past. 

World Class 2019 champion, Bannie Kang
World Class 2019 champion, Bannie Kang

And while Bacardi Legacy still tasks bartenders with crafting a signature drink ‘that stands the test of time’, the promotional aspect of the competition has developed into a months-long trial of a bartender’s marketing skills in the age of social media. This year, in preparation for the global final in Amsterdam, competitors did everything from designing a cocktail delivery service to breaking a world record in order to set their promotional campaigns apart – all meticulously documented on Instagram, of course.

Eye on the prize

But if you’re able to rise to these increasingly difficult challenges and impress the panel of industry-expert judges that preside over each comp, you’ll be amply rewarded with life-changing opportunities: contracts with giant spirits brands, media coverage, travel and beyond.

‘If you do well in them it can catapult your career,’ says Julie Reiner, owner of New York City bars Flatiron, Pegu Club and Clover Club – and a judge of both the Bacardi Legacy and World Class global finals. ‘And there are plenty of people who have competed and not won, but who have still created major careers for themselves. It can be huge.’

So what does it take to ‘do well’ in the two most trying cocktail competitions out there?

The perfect balance

For some judges, the serve is all that really matters. ‘Beverage creation is the most important part when I’m judging a competition,’ says Yael Vengroff, judge of Bacardi Legacy 2019 and bars director of The Spare Room in Los Angeles.

‘Of course you want a presentation that isn’t contrived and is natural, but it’s really all about creating a delicious, balanced serve. That can be difficult when people have different definitions of “balanced”, so you have to play to a common denominator of taste.’

Beverage creation is the most important part when I’m judging a competition 

Yael Vengroff

Meanwhile, Erik Lorincz, founder of London bar Kwãnt, judge of World Class 2019 and a former World Class champion himself, also prioritises the drink when judging – but he thinks that uniqueness is key. ‘Today, standard ingredients like mint, basil and coriander are everywhere. I'm looking for unusual ingredients. We want people to go out of their comfort zone, out from the supermarket to search for something unique.’

This doesn’t mean he’s encouraging novelty for novelty’s sake, though. ‘It's not just finding a wild, weird, geek ingredient. It's how to use it in a perfect way,’ he explains.

 Top tips from the best of the best

Past winners of World Class and Legacy share their advice for crushing competitions

Master your vibrating jigger

‘Everybody gets the shakes when they're pouring. It helps to do push-ups to get the blood flowing to the arms so they don't shake as much.’

Kaitlyn Stewart, World Class 2017 champion

Enjoy the moment

‘Make it fun and show who you are! Remember that people want you to do well, so just enjoy it.’

Eric Van Beek, Bacardi Legacy 2018 champion 

Get inspired

‘Look at the challenge as a project to explore the best out of you. Explore new things beyond the marble top. I don't mean that you should be the person who says, “Oh, I went and sat near the beach and listened to the waves and made a Martini with the inspiration”. I look to sports, actors and other types of performance to see how they prepare.’

Orlando Marzo, World Class 2018 champion

Stand and deliver

It all sounds easy enough – until you realise that many judges are weighing the presentation over the serve itself. ‘Ultimately there are many great drinks made in competitions, but so many are forgotten,’ says Jacob Briars, Bacardi’s global advocacy director and a judge of the promotional challenge of the Bacardi Legacy comp.

Briars sees the story behind the drink as the key to being remembered. ‘What is it that makes you leave a mark? It’s creating a drink that does more than taste good.’  He points to 2019 UK Legacy finalist Chelsea Bailey as an example. ‘With her presentation she managed to create a kind of solidarity,’ he says, referring to the explanation Bailey gave for her drink, Rum Reverie, which revolved around creating a cocktail that could be made and enjoyed by anyone.

And there’s the way the presentation is delivered, as well – it’s important to rehearse, but you don’t want to sound rehearsed. ‘When someone is presenting to me I want to feel like I'm sitting at their bar,’ says Kaitlyn Stewart, World Class 2017 champion. ‘People have such amazing stories, but if they can do it and it comes across genuinely and not like they've memorised a script, to me that gives bonus points.’

Creating that intimate connection with the judges and spectators is no small task, and it’s easily hindered by nerves. How many competitors have nailed their practice presentations, only to freeze when the round begins? ‘You have to be able to put on a show and handle the spotlight and the cameras and the people looking at you,’ comments Reiner. ‘You have to be able to handle the nervousness that comes along with that.’

Have some humanity

You’ve developed a balanced, unique drink, peppered your presentation with personal touches and brand knowledge and flashed your charming smile – it’s in the bag, right? Not necessarily, says Legacy judge and 2018 winner Eric Van Beek. ‘I look at not only your drink and your confidence onstage, but how you show your character offstage too. I’m looking at how you interact with competitors, servers, doormen – it shows a lot about you, and we want a winner that’s kind.’

I’m looking at how you interact with competitors, servers, doormen – it shows a lot about you

Eric Van Beek

While treating people with basic human decency may seem intuitive, in high-stress environments like cocktail competitions, a little reminder to treat people with respect certainly can’t hurt. After all, says 2018 World Class winner Orlando Marzo, the very foundation of bartending is hospitality.

‘I look for a combination, a sum of personality and a sense of hospitality,’ he remarks. ‘If you care about people, you care about ingredients. If you care about ingredients, you explore more. Everything is better with a sense of hospitality.’

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