Behind the scenes at Imbibe's Drinks List of the Year 2019 judging

Eleanor Dallaway

Eleanor Dallaway

11 November 2019

Last month, we raised several glasses to the winners of Imbibe’s fourth Drinks List of the Year Awards (DLOTY) at 100 Wardour Street, in a room full of talented nominees and teams who have mastered the art of evolving drinks lists from a purely functional shopping list, into an art form, and often, an experience.

I was lucky enough to be a 'fly on the wall’ at the judging of this year’s DLOTY awards. A fly that got to put forth my own opinion, enjoy the incredible Italian food at Luca in Clerkenwell and sample the equally delicious wine. As a newcomer to the industry, I was very much a self-aware rookie. I mean, I’m no stranger to a drinks list. And if exposure alone makes one an expert, perhaps I’m less ‘rookie’ than I declare myself. Either way, I’ll never look at a drinks list the same way again.

As the six judges deliberated over the UK’s best and most creative drinks lists, I learned a lot about what is considered desirable and what is considered faux pas. So for those of you interested in how we award the best of the best, I’ve pulled together 10 of the main takeaways from the judging of this year’s Drinks List of the Year competition:

  1. A long, lengthy read with pages upon pages of offerings is too laborious. The judges considered the anti-social requirement of a lengthy menu and favoured a more digestible read.
  2. Aesthetics are really important. Good, sometimes exceptional, presentation of drinks lists consistently won points with the judges. Fonts, imagery, binding, menu cover and even the quality of paper were all taken into consideration.
  3. Although presentation was key to scoring high, so too was content. The drinks themselves had to sound good – one judge declared one list ‘the absolute worst self-indulgence and vanity of the modern bartender’. In other words, they have to sound like drinks that customers will actually want to drink.
  4. The most desirable lists combined unique twists, quirkiness and imagination with class.
  5. The misspelling of ‘expresso martini’ was considered absolute sacrilege by the judges. Obviously.
  6. There was significant discussion around the inclusion of no- and low-alcohol drinks on a menu. The judges’ preferred method of inclusion was for it to feature as part of the rest of the menu. It was thought that customers prefer to order no/low in an understated way and they applauded the lists that mirrored this in their approach.
  7. There should be a good amount of imagery to balance text. Drawings, illustrations and the use of abstract photography was preferred over photographs of the drinks. Conceptual imagery that evoked nostalgia or supported the theme earned points.
  8. The judges looked down on gimmicks that take away from the ability to socialise. QR codes were considered distracting (and that’s the ones that worked!) and games that featured as part of the menu were deemed a distraction from natural conversation.
  9. Continuing the disdain for gimmick, the fad for drinks with glitter or gins that have been distilled by mermaids or whatever, was frowned upon by our judges, who favoured old-school glamour and class.
  10. Menu variation was essential. Theatre and aesthetics aside, people go to bars to drink and therefore the choice of drinks ultimately makes or breaks a drinks list. Those that scored high had a good variety of offerings and a selection of drinks that customers would actually enjoy, as opposed to being an indulgence for the bartender.
The judges loved the novel Scarfes Bar entry, an original music-themed menu
The judges loved the novel Scarfes Bar entry, an original music-themed menu

So there you have it. The insider’s account of the Imbibe Drinks List of the Year 2019 judging.

I’m already looking forward to seeing what gets sent in for the 2020 competition. Easy on unicorns, heavy on imagination and class, with a good sprinkling of subtle no- and low-abv should do it. Oh, and spellcheck for 'espresso’... please.

Cheers to our winners and all of our shortlisted lists!

A big thank-you to our judges:

  • Millie Milliken, acting editor, Imbibe
  • Julian de Feral, drinks consultant
  • Michael Butt, Soulshakers
  • Clinton Cawood, journalist
  • Stu Bale, Crucible
  • Lucy Morton, Edrington-Beam Suntory

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