The Pour debate: have industry awards gone too far?

24 January 2017

There's the 50 World's Best Bars, the Mixology Bar Awards, the Spirited Awards and indeed Imbibe's own Drinks List of the Year Awards: one could say you can pretty much win an award for just pouring these days.

So yesterday, Pour's panel of bar industry big names gathered in Bethnal Green's Town Hall Hotel to discuss the surge of awards our industry has seen in recent years. Are we obsessed? Has it gone too far? How much good do they really do? Are awards, in fact, having a negative affect on the industry?

Hosted by Alex Kratena with Mixography's Jim Meehan as MC, the panel – multi-award winning Mr Lyan Ryan Chetiyawardana, Portobello Road Gin's Jake Burger, former chairman of the Spirited Awards Simon Ford, Proof & Company Singapore's Zdenek Kastanek and World's 50 Best Bar's William Drew – was joined by a full house of spectators.

Kicking off the debate it was made clear that the panel believes awards give validation to bars and bartenders. 'It is entirely a team effort, and these awards give recognition to everybody,' said Chetiyawardana. He also alluded to the opportunities winning these awards gives to our industry: 'We are a young industry, and these awards allow you to engage in more conversations than ever with different industries... however, they're not what we strive for.'

Referring to the positive aspects of awards, Meehan said: 'In early days, awards brought our industry closer together... people started looking'.

'Awards are a carrot on a string, incentivising greatness,' he went on. 'They're a way to measure yourself. When they are coming from people who are respected in the industry, there is something to say for that. There is a validation of work, work done well... that brings gratification. They're also validation for your customers.'

Drew agreed: 'It's about promotion and bringing attention to the industry... facilitating collaborations across the world.'

Jokingly Meehan revealed the cocktail world used to be the equivalent to guys 'playing Dungeons and Dragons on a Saturday night'. The industry has gone from 'a nerdy group of people to a popular profession'. Was this aided by awards?

But what about the other side of the debate?  'It's about finding solutions and maintaining prestige and integrity of our awards,' said Meehan.

Egos can be an issue. Burger's Alternative Bar Awards was created as an attempt to ground egos in the industry he believed were 'a little out of control'. But why no more? 'We failed in our ambition', revealed Burger. 'The award scene was beyond parody, we realised we'd been taken over by real life,' he joked. 'That's not saying I think that these awards are a bad thing, but they perhaps encourage the worst excesses of this industry.'

Greed, egos and money were manly discussed when looking at the negative affects these awards have on our industry, with the panel agreeing they can cause egos in the industry to get a little out of control.

'Awards can have a toxic affect on winners, they can turn into a popularity context' added Meehan. 'They've taken a slightly sinister turn in some ways,' agreed Chetiyawardana.

It was made clear that there is a lack of opportunity for unknown bars to win these awards. Judges also have to have visited the bar in the last two years – again, hindering small town bars. 'Bars in smaller cities should be given an opportunity,' insisted Ford. 'These are the growing pains of the awards, that smaller bars are not getting a look in'.

Flaws in the varied judging systems of these awards were also discussed – with no set judging criteria in awards such as the Spirited Awards, bars are often unaware of what is required to win. Should a set of guidelines be written?

The panel also explored the negative effects awards could have on recipients. Kastanek suggested  that with money and sponsorships from big brands, bars and bartenders may change to fit what a brand wants from them, forgetting that it was their individuality and creativity that won them the prize in the first place.

Finally, the idea of a Michelin-star guide for bars was brought up in audience questions, why should only a handful of bars be recognised when so many exist? Why not make a standard rating of excellence to award to great bars? The panel agreed it is something that could happen in the near future.

'In ten years we have moved from loving awards, to hating them, to not knowing if we love or hate them,' said Kastanek. So have they gone too far? He believes it could be too early to judge...

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