We at Bartender Atlas feel fortunate that based on our experience we’re asked to judge cocktails often. When it comes to judging cocktail competitions there are many factors that figure into the final decision. There are often very strict criteria by which the drinks are measured and sometimes, based on those criteria, the best drink might not win. Rather than us just talking about our own experiences with cocktail competition judging, we decided to reach out to industry leader, Christina Veira. Currently one of the owners of Bar Mordecai in Toronto, Christina has been in the service industry for longer than she would like to admit and a little under a decade ago she started competing.
Speaking as someone who was there for it. She destroyed everyone in her first year or two of competing. She’s since been asked dozens of times to help different organizations and brands choose the cocktail that best represents that organization or brand and the idea or theme that they want to drive home.
Bartender Atlas: Christina, when did you start entering cocktail competitions? And what was your approach when you were entering?
Christina Veira: My first comp, I believe was in 2015 or 2016. I actually entered competitions not necessarily to win. I was in the starting process of opening a place. But part of opening that place was going to have importing involved. I really wanted to meet other people who are more in the mixology world because I was always in bars and restaurants but less a part of that mixology, cocktail bartender world. I wanted to hone my skills because again, most of my experience up to that point, which is still about 10 years of experience, hadn’t been in certain styles of bars. So I thought one of the easiest ways wasn’t only in working in a bar, but doing the competitions and getting in that social sphere.
BA: What was your approach when you would enter a competition?
CV: For me there were a couple of things. One was looking at the rules and the concepts. I think even now not everyone puts in that time for that. So one, I was really curious about what the rules were, what was the concept, what was the hook. Also what the brand was and how they position themselves to the hook. So a very common one, for example, is sustainability. But every brand approaches sustainability a little bit differently than others. My first comp was the Tahona Society Comp and that was around sustainability. I made sure to go to the seminar. I think you had to but I made sure to pay attention in the seminar that you had to go to. I talked to a lot of people about what they thought were different approaches. Then I just kind of really worked on my cocktail using all those parts. But mostly again the theme and the brand. Then taking my creativity from there
BA: How many cocktail competitions would you say you’ve judged in the last 5 years or so?
CV: That’s hard. Probably at least at least 10, probably more. And then also organizing, adds quite a bit to that, too. So I’ve organized quite a few, either through them being held at the venue or things like Beyond the Rail at RC (Restaurants Canada) Show. We organize that and then do the initial selection of competitors and then guide the judges for that. Then there is Speed Rack and Jiggle Ball. So I think from all kinds of parts of it, it’s probably closer to 20 or more.
BA: You’ve seen all kinds of different competitions, different angles of it. When you get the brief from the brand or when you’re organizing a competition, when you see what they’re looking for from competitors, how closely responsible do you keep the competitors to what the brief is? Do you feel like there are ways that creativity will forgive certain parts of the brief? Or do you want people to stick with “this is what we’re doing, these are the rules and go”.
CV: As a judge I try to stick as close to the brief and have conversations with the judges, even if I’m an organizer about what the intention of it is. I think everyone’s always heard someone complain, say that they entered an Old Fashioned cocktail competition but then the drink that won was basically a Sour. Even if something’s very good, most competitions aren’t: “This is for the world’s best cocktail.” Usually there’s a hook and an angle. I think whatever that hook and angle is for the brand. Be it sustainability. Be it something like the most creative. Maybe it’s reimagining a certain cocktail. I think that is very important. I think creativity can get you a certain way but I think sometimes people confuse creativity with fussiness or complexity. There is a difference between creativity and complexity. Creativity can also be in your concept which is why I think it’s very important for people to always bring it back to what the intention behind the competition is.
I think that what I’ve noticed in the last couple of years, whether intentional or not from brands, is that fewer and fewer scoring point categories have gone towards technical aspects. I think part of it being that we have newer bartenders. This newer generation hasn’t necessarily been as mentored on technical aspects. What I do think that does sometimes is that people look at the rubric and they’re like “well, this part doesn’t matter, so I don’t have to work on it.” When in reality a lot of your technicality, your hand skills, your ability to measure, will lead into your presentation and/or will negatively or positively affect what your end goal is. So, while it’s not weighed as much in some competitions, I do think that that sometimes is the deciding factor when you’re going between a couple of different people who both have strong entries. But maybe one is stronger in one area than the other.
I always joke that cocktail competitions are great because really all you have to do is make one drink perfectly, like 3 copies of the same drink perfectly in 10 min which is far easier when you think of it that way than any service that any bartender does regardless of how busy or slow the place is. But for that reason, too, as a judge, I think it’s very important that someone is able to make one drink, the 3 copies of it, perfectly in all ways because they have more time.
BA: Are there any red flags in cocktail submissions when you’re reading recipes ahead of time? Anything that you see and immediately think “you’re out! Disqualification.”
CV: So I would never want to speak to what every paper round should look like but I’ve noticed that a lot of competitions now really do weigh a lot on a paper round before it goes to something in-person. Paper round, of course, being submissions beforehand.
I think one, and this is going to sound funny, but like your submission has to make sense. Because your submission is all that is speaking for you. When you’re in-person, you can be like, “oh, this doesn’t make sense as much on paper but this is how I actually balance it. This is how I actually made it.”
A few ways that often submissions don’t make sense is when people put the wrong brand in. They just forget to edit their drink. That actually happens pretty often. You’re entering a Woodford competition and then you write 1.5 ounces of Maker’s Mark, or you write the wrong expression. It’s supposed to be Bourbon and you write Rye. That’s really common.
Another one is a recipe that doesn’t follow a rule. Let’s say that it has to use at least 45 millilitres of a spirit, so it’s not spirit forward enough on the call brand or the way that it’s written. When you read the recipe as a judge you think that it’s very unlikely to showcase the brand. So a good example of that is, maybe you do use 45 millilitres of the base spirit, and that’s the minimum that you have to do, but you also have another 45 millilitres of like sugary modifiers. You probably added like an ounce of Mezcal or more to it. And then, when you’re reading that as a judge, you might be like this is a cool cocktail but you’d ask yourself is this a (insert brand here) cocktail? And often it isn’t. Will this showcase the sponsored brand spirit? Or is this maybe a cocktail that someone created that would sell well in a bar? Competition drinks might be delicious but they’re not necessarily the same as your most popular drink on a Saturday night. For a lot of good reasons, mostly because usually people aren’t crafting their cocktails in a bar to only showcase one brand. That is a big thing for paper rounds especially.
Then the other thing is kind of going into like ratios and proportions. You don’t necessarily want to mimic exactly like what cocktail families are. No one’s expecting you to do that. But most judges that you’re going to have judging a paper round are people who have created recipes and tested recipes. So again, if the ratios of the drinks seem really off or unbalanced that can be a red flag. If you have written that you made a modifier, unless it’s something that’s very obvious, but even then you should write what you did. So, for honey, don’t just write, “honey”, I’m gonna assume you’re just doing honey straight from the Billy Bee can. Tell us if you cut it with something, and how you cut it. If it’s 3:1 honey, it’s 2:1, if it’s 1:1, whatever it might be. Because that will let us better figure out what the drink will actually taste like. And there’s a pretty big difference from if you added 15 millilitres of straight honey or straight agave versus if you added 15 millilitres of like a 2:1 honey or agave syrup. That might also help us think that something is more likely to be balanced or more likely to showcase the brand. That’s something that I think people miss a lot.
If you’re allowed to make homemade ingredients really be specific about it. There’s no real such thing as “a bunch” or if something is better to be weighed then it’s better to showcase it being weighed. In terms of rules, if they say something “replicable”, you probably shouldn’t be using a Rotovap. That is likely not replicable unless it’s a Rotovap competition.
You basically want to make your paper round the same as what would entice you to make a drink if you read about in a cocktail book. Does it read as balanced? Something being weird in your recipe can help you but it has to be weird in a way that someone can see making sense. There are ways that you can also showcase this or cheat it. It can be in your description. For example, if you know that it looks like you have a lot of syrups in your recipe but you know your syrups aren’t particularly sweet then you can hint that you know that in the description and that’s helpful in a paper round. If you just kind of just slap down a recipe, the judges are going to think that it seems a bit off and you likely won’t make it through that round.
Lastly, too, as part of that being really clear with your sizing can be very helpful. Some people make big drinks. Americans make big drinks, I find. But if I look at a recipe and it has 60 millilitres of lime juice I might be like, “oh, like, how big is this? Or is this really really tart?”
BA: Competition rules aside, should a bartender be infusing the focus spirit in a competition?
CV: Yeah, I would say, I would really lean towards NO on that. Have I done well in a competition where I’ve modified the spirit? Yeah. Have I been a judge that has also given a win to someone who’s done that? 100%. But those drinks are usually quite good, quite balanced or fighting against drinks that are not good and not balanced. It would be better to take that ingredient – and if you’re allowed to have a house made ingredient which ideally you are – take that ingredient and put it somewhere else, not in the focus spirit.
BA: If you’re going to infuse the spirit or the focus brand, make sure that that’s the only way you’re getting that ingredient in there that makes sense.
CV: Yeah. Like, if it’s if you really want to coconut wash the gin in a cocktail competition but you’re also using Campari, maybe coconut wash the Campari.
BA: If bartenders are writing out recipes for competitions for paper rounds, or even when they’re presenting, how do you feel about bartenders naming other brands? Not necessarily competing brands, but brands represented by a different distributor? Would you say it’s useful to mention that other brand if it’s not the focus brand? Using your example from before to just write “Bourbon” or do you want to write Woodford Reserve or Maker’s Mark? If those brands that have nothing to do with the competition you are judging, would you just write Bourbon or would you write the brand name?
CV: I think there’s a couple of things with it. I would rather you not put the brand, but put something that differentiates the brand. So if you are using like a Buffalo Trace instead of using Maker’s Mark, I wouldn’t necessarily write Buffalo Trace, I’d maybe write “high rye bourbon” which does also help the judges, and it shows your intentionality. Obviously there’s some things like Campari, you probably don’t want to write “red aperitivo”. You can write, I think, Campari. If they’re brand has a very similar thing to Campari, then I would highly suggest rebalancing your cocktail to use their similar product. I think for certain modifiers, it kind of makes sense. But if you can frame something like “elderflower liqueur”, do that. I think that’s very helpful,
What I’ve noticed in a lot of cocktail competitions, especially in-person, competitors don’t realize that they spend so much more time talking about their modifiers than talking about either the base spirit or how the modifiers specifically are showcasing the base spirit. And so all of a sudden, you’re hearing more about Fernet, or a very specific style of vermouth or very specific Calvados than you did about what the whole point of the competition is. So I think, writing it down as, say, a “dry floral sweet vermouth”, “high rye Bourbon”, “smoky Mezcal”, “highly peated Scotch” also helps you frame your mentality for how you’re actually gonna speak to the judges and where you’re going to place importance.
BA: Can you tell, when you’re judging a competition if someone has tried to shoehorn the sponsor spirit into a cocktail based on what they want to make versus what the competition is supposed to be? If someone is a little too excited about their homemade ingredient versus being excited about the brand.
CV: I think it’s usually pretty obvious there’s a couple of things when…to this day I’m always surprised by how many people will say inaccurate things about the brand very confidently. I know that a lot of brands are online and their product knowledge is essentially just a spec sheet. So I understand that you usually don’t get much from them. But you’re still at the competition. There’s reps there. They usually do some sort of seminar before they usually send something over. Before you say “Auchentoshan is heavily peated” or something like that. You’re allowed to not necessarily be a great taster. A lot of bartenders don’t really know how to taste spirits and I think that’s where that comes from. So they kind of wing it and that works with guests but it doesn’t usually work with judges. I think that you can tell a lot of people shoehorn it because they think it makes it sound more enticing. I’d rather you just do a bit more research and also always find time to link it back. You like the orange in your aperitivo because you like how it complements the candied orange notes in this aged rum that comes from the esterification. You have to always find ways to link back to the sponsored brand. Your homemade ingredients are great but often they’re not the whole purpose of the competition. Something that I think people don’t realize too, is often your homemade ingredient might taste a bit more fucked up to balance out a cocktail. It is actually pretty often that a homemade ingredient might have to be a little bit too much or a little bit more subtle, so it might not taste as amazing on its own. Then, when it’s integrated in your cocktail. It’s great, and that’s great, because that’s actually the same with a lot of spirits. A lot of spirits are a lot. But then you put them into a cocktail and they get softer.
BA: What is the worst experience you have had judging a cocktail competition and why?
CV: I think the worst experiences I’ve had have all had to do with hygiene. I think a lot of people do really unhygienic things that they don’t realize. Maybe because they’re nervous. There was one competition with someone who kept rolling this cheese garnish with their hands. And then the judges have to try it. It just felt very dirty. Or people adding garnish that they don’t actually know if they’re edible or not, and then you want to try it but you can’t. I’d say part of the technicality of something is also the hygiene and I think people get away with certain things on a bar when they’re crushed but again at a competition, you should be able to have a very nice, clean, sanitary cocktail.
If you cut yourself, don’t keep bartending. The judges aren’t going to drink a cocktail that might have blood in it. Which is why I always suggest that you don’t peel your fruit live. If you’re allowed to pre prep your peels, just pre prep your peels. Nervous people cut themselves.
Yes, all around hygiene.
I was judging a Bourbon competition – and I think sometimes people get too creative with their their history talks – one competitor kind of framed a Bourbon as what brought the North and South together in the American Civil War. There’s a lot of that I have noticed with Bourbon specifically, a lot of like weird romanticism around the Civil War that I don’t think people even mean to do. And you just want to say “I would have cut out these 20 seconds”.
BA: Have you ever had a cocktail at a competition and then later been at that competitor’s bar had the drink, and then sort of doubted yourself whether it was positive or negative?
CV: Yeah, I mean, I’ve done that to myself. Like, with my own drink. Haha.
I’ve definitely had some cocktails and I’ve tried them again and thought, was this great before? I think that has to do with people being really precise ideally when they’re making their drinks at the competition and are really putting that best foot forward. Then when you go to their bar, there is less precision going into their work and it kind of shows. One thing I’ve noticed a lot ,and a lot of judges I talked to notice a lot, is many people really don’t measure accurately. The measurements they tell you of the drink and it’s not what they’re pouring into their shaker. That’s been pretty consistent at most competitions I’ve judged over the last couple of years. And that just goes to show that that is something they’re doing at their bar and probably doing a lot more because they’re not going to maybe win $5,000 at their bar, they’re just getting to a shift.
BA: So outside of everything that we’ve already talked about. Do you have anything we haven’t touched on that, you would say as a tip for someone entering a competition for the first time or thinking about it, or someone that’s been doing it for a while, and maybe you wish people would pay more or less attention to?
CV: I think people get in their heads about how they would present. I was a shy person and I learned public speaking. That’s something that helped me in competitions. It’s not stuttering that actually loses you points. A lot of people shake but there’s ways that you can rest your hand on the side of the bar. It’s how you recover from when you miss a line you want to say. I always suggest to people not to actually write out your speeches. I think it’s more important to have what you want to hit as a flow which is what a lot of people who do public speaking do. So you basically want to mention this thing and this thing and this thing, it’s all points. Then you basically create the sentences through and that allows you to make it a bit more lively. Sometimes people say a lot, and they have this really flowery speech, but they don’t actually say anything. It just sounds good. Then people who win are often not the showiest ones, but they convey a lot of information and they’re captivating. You can think about it like a bar, too, right? Sometimes it’s the best bartending experiences or customer experiences. So I think that it’s very important to know what you’re going to say. But I think it’s less important to script it out in a structured way and to treat it like how you would treat a bar service where you’re very comfortable with what you’re serving. Most judges, really love that kind of authenticity in a presentation.
- Fully write out your cocktail recipe for that submission. Make sure you include all measurements and methods. If you are unsure of how to do this, pick up any cocktail book that you love and see how they format the recipes there. Write it out so anyone can read your drink and understand how it will taste and what your intentions are for it.
- Stick with the ask of the cocktail competition. Brands have a purpose/theme/hook/angle. If your submission doesn’t fit with that, you will likely not make it past that paper round.
- The focus of your drink should be that sponsor brand. Never lose sight of that. When adding other spirits to create your cocktail, you should first see if that brand has one in their own portfolio. If they don’t, you should consider how you mention that spirit in the recipe (ie, maybe don’t name the brand name unless there really is no alternative).
- Maybe reconsider infusing that sponsored spirit, the spirit which is the whole focus of the competition. Keep in mind that that brand has a highly skilled master distiller or blender working to create that spirit to how they want it. What kind of messaging does that show the judges when you then alter that spirit? If an infusion is what your drink needs, consider infusing a different aspect of the drink, rather than the the sponsored one.
- When competing in-person, do all of the preparation that you can. Make your life as simple as possible for when it’s your time to get in front of the judges.
- Practise good hygiene. We cannot believe we have to continually mention this, especially given what we have all been through with the pandemic, but here we are. If you want the judges to drink your drink so that you can potentially win that prize, make sure it’s sanitary for them to do so. This was also mentioned in our interview with James Grant on Being a (Cocktail Competition) Loser.
- Be sure that what you are serving to the judges is safe for consumption. Not sure? A great resource is Camper English’s Cocktail Safe.
- Learn the sponsored brand. Learn their story and history and what they’re about – and don’t elaborate on the truth of it. If you are having troubles finding that information, reach out to the brand ambassador or your local rep and ask questions. That’s part of their job.
- When preparing what you will say to the judges as you make and present your cocktail, remember the focus should be on that sponsored brand. You can mention the other components of your cocktail but never lose sight of that focus.
- Instead of preparing a full speech to memorise and regurgitate when in front of the judges, plan points that you want to hit and the put your own personality and self into what you say. This authenticity will set you apart from anyone else.
Thank you, Christina for spending your time with us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.