The industry is awash with cocktail competitions, many of them global and all of them with escalating prizes to attract entries. So how has Bacardi Legacy maintained its relevance after a decade? Jane Ryan investigates
From the days of comedy-giant cheques and distillery tours, the ante has been upped to job contracts and year-long travel opportunities as the reward for winning cocktail competitions. But one competition has remained, from its original idea ten years ago, as part of the fabric of our global cocktail world.
Sure its prize is huge – and tailored to each winner. And yes, it’s one of the largest brands in the world with the budget to realise even its most wild dreams. But Bacardi Legacy requires the hardest work from its entrants of any competition. It always has. It demands a commitment well beyond ten minutes on stage – even for those who won’t ever make it to the final. So as other brands struggle to attract entrants in a saturated market how is Bacardi Legacy still considered one of, if not the, most important competitions to enter ten years on?
Cocktails that last the distance
Legacy was the brainchild of one of Bacardi’s surviving family members Enrique Comas, who after going through UK trade magazines started to wonder what was happening to all the winning drinks from the abundance of cocktail competitions launching, running and announcing their winners.
‘We have such a strong legacy of drinks created with Bacardi, so we said how do you run a competition where the drink is the feature and it has some longevity? So that was the spark,’ Comas says.
‘If you think of the top 15 or 20 true classic cocktails in the industry, Bacardi has more of those than any other spirit,’ says Jacob Briars, Bacardi’s global advocacy director. ‘So the idea you can create a drink of your own that’s going to stand the test of time is very real and I think bartenders can look at the Mojito and the El Presidente, and more recent examples like the Old Cuban, and think I’d like to do that too.’
If the idea was to create a competition that ran with the drinks, have any stood the test of time?
Comas says yes, mentioning Fred Siggins’ Empire of Dreams, the winning drink from Australia in 2014, Chris Moore’s Encantador from 2013, and The Night Cup from the same year by winner Elizaveta Evdokimova of Russia as the ones that have stuck with him the most.
Across the UK, it’s probably Tom Walker’s Maid in Cuba or Iain Griffith’s Carta Switchel that would trip off the tongue of most bartenders.
‘The Night Cup was a complete surprise for me, I had never seen Bacardi used in an aperitivo-style drink. It’s the one I order the most because it’s such a simple recipe. Whenever I go into a bar, scan my eyes across the shelves and see they’ve got Bacardi Carta Blanca, grenadine and Cynar, I ask them to make it,’ says Comas.
But could you call them modern classics in the same way as Sam Ross’ Penicillin or Joerg Meyer’s Gin Basil Smash? Arguably not. So if your drink isn’t being mentioned alongside the Mojito or the Daiquiri – which to be fair have had a few more years to gain traction – what does Legacy offer the modern bartender and why is its allure still so strong?
As most of us glued to our social feeds will know, entrants to Legacy have, over the years and in different formats, had to promote and market their drink. Whether they chose to do global pop-ups, be featured on menus around the world or take some less obvious routes to spreading the name, it’s a competition that is hard to ignore.
While it may seem Bacardi is on to a good thing getting bartenders to promote cocktails using their rum, it's this hard graft and months of extra work which Briars says is the competition's best asset.
‘I think the promotion of your drink is the secret ingredient. The discipline bartenders find when trying to win Bacardi Legacy really sets them up to be much more successful,’ says Briars.
If you take stock of ex-Legacy entrants, he’s not wrong either. Chris Moore now owns Coupette in Bethnal Green, which has been collecting awards since it opened its doors last year. Griffiths, who didn’t claim the ultimate prize either, has just finished a global tour with his own concept Trash Tiki.
As for the winners? Well they’re all doing more than alright too, especially, says Briars, 2012’s winner Shingo Gokan.
‘Shingo took the opportunity Legacy gave him to become, I would say, one of the world’s truly global entrepreneurs. He’s got a brand new bar in Japan, two in China, there’s talk of a New York venue, he does consultancy around the world and has a range of cocktail equipment.
‘I don’t think Legacy reveals anything that isn’t there, but it opens doors to allow the bartenders to be as great as they are.’
Legacy, it seems, has a habit of changing a bartender’s career and brand relations for life. And it’s not reserved for those from established markets either.
‘Five or six years ago we used to say you could write down the UK, Australia and a couple of other countries and predict they would be in the top eight,’ says Briars. ‘Now cocktail culture is really and truly becoming so global. One of our finalists from 2018 was a girl who works in a café in Guadalajara. She has the skill and thinking of a top bartender in New York.’
With a top eight from India, Cyprus, Argentina, Mexico, Japan, Greece, Australia and the Netherlands, 2018 was a case in point of Legacy shifting away from established markets to provide a stage for bartenders across the world.
Perhaps it’s this unpredictability of just which nations will make the cut that keeps Legacy interesting for its global audience. In 2018 the semi-finals were pulling in tens of thousands of viewers from China were local media were streaming it live from Mexico, despite the 13 hour time difference.
The legacy of family
This notion that one of the largest and most recognisable spirit brands being a family company might strike even the most gullible journalist as contrived marketing. And yet… and yet here was the Bacardi family hosting one of their family dinners in Mexico City, inviting a group of international bartenders into the fold, sharing stories of their Cuban heritage and their grandmother, who used to toast each Christmas with the hope that the next one would be spent back in their home country.
Does the notion of being let in to a group that includes a lot of the biggest names in the industry help pull in Legacy’s entrants?
‘We’re a company that is a family company, but we don’t just do it because we’re looking to create a point of difference, we really feel it. It’s just the hug my mum can give you when you haven’t made it – that’s what family is about,’ says Comas.
The fight for Legacy
Over the ten years this competition has grown to more than 30 countries, has crowned ten winners and has realised plenty of ambitions, if not dreams, to see the world, open venues and put names in the brightest of lights. But that doesn’t mean it’s protected forever. In fact, says Briars, he has to fight for Legacy more than you might think.
‘I’ve probably been the biggest advocate of cocktail competitions in the industry over the last 15 years. I genuinely believe they are good for bartenders and I sit in board rooms on a regular basis trying to protect cocktail competitions,’ says Briars.
‘The reason I keep doing it is I believe a bartender who goes through a cocktail competition at whatever level, be it regionals or nationals, comes out a more skilful, more knowledgeable bartender.’
One of the judges for the grand final this year was New York bar owner and Speed Rack founder Ivy Mix. She’s been an advocate of the competition since judging the 2016 semi-finals in San Francisco. But, says Mix, there’s work to be done to ensure more women are getting their chance on the Legacy stage.
‘It’s not Legacy’s fault, I think they do a fantastic job, look how diverse the judging panels are, but three women this year out of 32 is kind of a problem. There needs to be some sort of support system to get more female bartenders involved. I don’t know what that looks like but I’d like to help them create one,’ Mix says.
For now, Legacy looks set to continue as one of two most prestigious awards to fight for and win in the cocktail world. One that is increasingly harder to claim as well, as the more advanced markets feel the rest of the world snapping at their heels with knowledge, skill and creativity. But the reason it’s still here?
As Briars says ‘I don’t think the real impact of Legacy is winning it as much as going through it.’
Meaning, you don’t have to win this competition to have it change your career – you just have to try. And how many competitions can offer more than one success story a year?