Bartender Atlas: We at Bartender Atlas have noticed that as cocktail competitions have started up again in person, some of the competitors (don’t worry, not you…probably) have been taking these competitions and the results too personally. I know I have only ever won 2 cocktail competitions (one was basically a Twitter competition and the other I made what, to this day, is one of the 5 best cocktails I ever created), so I found different ways to engage with bartenders.
Losing is never a great feeling but remember that there are a bunch of reasons to compete in cocktail competitions. Rather than just listing them off ourselves, we decided to talk with 2021 World Class Bartender of The Year James Grant about how to be a loser.
James Grant: Have I got advice for you!
BA: James tell me about your foray into bartending and when you decided that entering cocktail competitions was for you?
JG: I got into bartending relatively late in life. I started when I was about 30. I was living in London and in true loser fashion I couldn’t get a job in my field which at the time was public relations. So I Googled “bartender resume”. I made up a fake resume. I applied to a bunch of bars and I started working behind a bar in London and I fell in love with it really quickly. I just enjoyed serving people. Looking after them and being a host. And I never really looked back. So not long after that I ran out of money and moved back to Canada and started working in cocktail bars and kind of that was that. Looking at how I started doing competitions, had a lot to do with the fact that I was working in a relatively small market – Edmonton – and I knew that if I wanted to sort of make up for lost time and make this into a real career and kind of raise my profile, the fastest way I could do that and get immediately kind of plugged in to the National conversation of bartending would be through things like competitions. All of a sudden you do well in your market and you’re on a flight or whatever to Vancouver, Toronto, Montréal, wherever competing alongside the best bartenders in the country and presenting to real leaders in our industry. So once I realised that, I started doing competitions a lot more. Also I found it to be fun.
BA: Other than winning, tell me about the reasons you think that competing in cocktail competitions is worthwhile.
JG: I competed for years and years and what I found was those were the opportunities to really push myself outside of my comfort zone. When you are making the same menu day in and day out or even when the only time you push yourself in terms of your craft is when you’re trying to put a new drink on a menu or build a new menu depending in how involved you are in that process at your bar, you’re only doing that maybe once or twice a year. But if you’re in competitions constantly, you’re having to learn about different brands, you’re having to learn how to tell a story or make a drink or use different techniques. You’re really thinking about all of the things you’re already doing on a day-to-day basis as a bartender but you’re thinking about it in these hyper-specific, very focused ways that even if you don’t realise it’s happening you do bring that kind of mindset back to the bar more and more. I really loved competing because even though it was a lot of hard work and I was putting a lot of myself into it I was becoming a much stronger bartender. I was becoming a better host. A better presenter. My knowledge around spirits and flavour combinations was growing and improving. Just the professional development of pushing yourself I think is such a reward for doing competitions. And then you’re networking with people all across, sometimes, the world but typically your region or your country and you’re building this network. You’re getting ideas from them. It makes you a better bartender and if I say so, it makes you a better person.
BA: How many times did you enter World Class before placing in the top ten for Canada? And how many before you won for Canada and then the world?
JG: I entered once. So before finishing in the top ten – it changes year to year whether we have a top fifteen, top ten, whatever – but I did it one year before making it to the National final which is usually what we think of as that top ten.
I was in the National final three, call it three and a half times because we had a year that was a Covid year so I made it through to the National final but then we didn’t have a National final. The first year I did it, I went to Regionals and, you know, I was used to winning a couple and doing well in local competitions in Edmonton and around Alberta. I still hadn’t really won anything yet, I had done well and I felt confident in my abilities and I went to the Regional final in Vancouver in 2017 and did terribly. Like, did absolutely terribly. Wasn’t able to deal with my stress day-of and I was having a little sip of Scotch to sort of calm my nerves and then my performance would obviously get a lot worse because I was not on my game. By the end of the day I was so frustrated with myself and I was just so happy for it to be done. In retrospect I presented really badly and in general, it’s amazing that they let me back in. But what I realised and it’s something that I try to tell a lot of competitors now, is that that moment where you’re sort of really upset – I see so many bartenders in other competitions where they are “Oh, it’s rigged” “I’m not what they’re looking for” “I’m never going to be that winner” “I’m not meant for this competition” – you can have that kind of reaction and that’s fine. Your feelings are valid but you’re never going to get anything else from that competition. You’re just going to be beating your head against a wall. Or you can learn the lessons that that competition is trying to teach you. Like, I didn’t show up organised enough. I didn’t understand the level that everyone else was competing at and I wasn’t set up and my drinks weren’t good enough. So I can either take that learning and improve and come back next year and do better or I can just let this be my story with this competition. So whenever my name comes up “Oh didn’t James Grant compete in World Class.” “Yeah he kinda fell apart and was a real mess. That’s what we remember about him.”
BA: You mentioned that there were a few other things around Edmonton, Calgary, Alberta, Western Canada, what are some of those cocktail competitions that you entered and lost?
I had done a Flor de Caña competition right off the bat. I entered Patron Perfectionists, I submitted to Perfectionists year after year, three years in a row and never even got asked to present at the Regionals. I did Woodford Reserve. I was lucky enough to do really well at Woodford Reserve. I made it to the Global finals. I still didn’t win that. One of the things that I have always been really really proud about in Edmonton was helping to revive something called Midnight Cocktail Club which was a really small informal monthly competition where bartenders from all around the city would finish service, convene at a bar and just do an informal competition and judge it. It really taught us all how to present in front of other people, how to make drinks on the fly, how to speak to a product and I did tons of those. That was really helpful because you do a bunch of those and sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t. It kind of teaches you as long as you are still taking the lessons from it, it’s not a loss.
BA: So you wouldn’t say that any of those competitions that you lost, none of them were a waste of time?
JG: None. No. Absolutely not.
BA: What would you say – and specifically about losing, about not winning, about watching someone maybe leapfrog you or seeing someone that surprised you or surprised the judges – what lessons do you learn about being a loser from not winning cocktail competitions? How have you adjusted your view of losing?
JG: I ask myself: well why did that person win? What do I have to learn from that person? If you show up and you go all in, give it everything – which is the mindset you should have when you compete – and someone still beats you, what do you have to learn from them? Odds are you chatted over the course of the competition and you can certainly help build that friendship from that point on. Usually I found that the people that I lost to or people that I competed really hard against, became some of my best friends in the industry because it’s a shared experience that not many people have and you have that in common now. Also I think a lot about situations like that one time one of the other World Class winners Charles Joly, he judged me years ago. I remember him telling me and I think about this all the time: you don’t learn anything when everything goes according to plan. If you show up and you’re like “okay, I’ve got this drink. I think I’m going to present this way. It’s fine” and you win, it’s great. Okay. Cool. I did it. But if you go and say you didn’t win because it took you too long to set up your station, you were really flustered at the start of your presentation and you never recovered from it – which happened to me and that’s what I credit to why I didn’t win Woodford Reserve. I didn’t have enough time to set up my station, I was really flustered when the presentation started and I just couldn’t get it back on track. After that I was like what systems can I put in place so that doesn’t happen again. After that I always competed from a tray. I had a tray that I took to every competition and I knew exactly how much real estate I could control so I could walk onto any bar, anywhere and just put the tray down and be like, I’m ready to go.
BA: Did you use competition drinks as a way to workshop cocktails that will eventually land on menus and as a manager of, however many dozens of bartenders at this point, if any of them mention they want to enter competitions, is that sort of the approach that you give them?
JG: 100%. There are competition drinks that I have done previously over the years that I still put onto menus. Or I adapt combinations where I never thought these two flavours would work together and somehow they do. Or even… I just finished judging all of the submission cocktails for World Class. I judged 100 cocktails and there were flavour combinations that I was like I’ve never thought of these two things as working together but this is awesome. When my bartenders come to me and say “we want to enter this competition”, regardless of the brand or the format, we workshop their cocktails and we figure out what works. We refine them. If the cocktail is where it needs to be, we can throw it on a menu no problem.
BA: What would you say as a piece of advice, to someone who keeps entering cocktail competitions and keeps placing second, third or lower down, what advice would you give them about if they want to keep entering competitions or decide to get out of it. What things about them would you say they should look at?
JG: I think you need to ask yourself what you are looking to get out of the competition. Because if you are just competing and kind of just want to use that as an opportunity to network with people or connect with your friends from across the country and go on a trip somewhere, that’s fine. If you are okay with that level that you are bringing to the competition it’s kind of getting you there then maybe that is fine for you. If you look at it and think I want to win one of these things then you need to really look at why you aren’t. So you need to be asking judges for their feedback and sometimes that’s harsh. Sometimes the feedback is not necessarily what you want to hear or read but you need to develop the objectivity and critical thinking skills to look at that criticism and internalise it. You also maybe need to look at how you are presenting yourself and how are you engaging with whatever brand is sponsoring this.
So I did World Class year after year and there were little things I kept seeing in the judge’s feedback. And I was like, whatever, it doesn’t matter. But the last year that I did it, I told myself that I really wanted to win it. I didn’t necessarily want to do it anymore but I was going to keep doing it until I won. So if I was losing two points every year because I kept touching the ice with my hands, maybe I would just train myself to not touch the ice with my hands. So I did. It took two or three months but it’s now something that I incorporated entirely into my technique. The other thing is, a lot of people will compete and they’ll sort of say I know what this competition is looking for so I’m going to try to be that. But in general, most competitions are looking for the best version of you. World Class is a very good example of it. You look at all the winners – the winners in Canada are all very different. From someone like me who’s probably a bit more of a formal bartender to someone like Massimo Zitti who is still an incredibly talented bartender who makes exceptional drinks but we’re very different in style and the kind of drinks we make are very, very different. But what connects the two of us is we presented the best version of ourselves in the competition and we showed up saying, I am going to win this, not really giving ourselves another option not to. If what you want to do is win it, you need to figure out what it is about you that sets you apart from the crowd and show up with the intention of going all in and winning. Not saying “I’d like to win” or “it would be nice if I won” but it takes everything. That sounds silly and I tell bartenders that I have that are competing, that my everything might be different than yours, might be different from Kaitlyn Stewart’s, might be different from Massimo or Jacob or Gianluca who just won Patron Perfectionists but I don’t think there is anyone out there that’s won a major cocktail competition that will tell you it took anything less than 100%.
BA: Have you ever entered a competition and you make the drink and you kill the presentation and everything was great and then you taste that drink that you just made for the judges at the last moment and realise it is kind of shit?
JG: Yeah. Definitely. When I did Bacardi Legacy a few years ago, which sadly no longer happens I really did quite enjoy that competition, it’s interesting because you have one drink and you take it through every single round and like any creative endeavour, any project, when you spend so much time with it without the ability to edit or refine or correct it –
BA: Or bounce if off other people?
JG: Not even bounce it off other people, it’s just like, you know, if you sit with a drawing or a piece of writing, every time you go back to it, you’re like actually I want to change that a little bit or fix this. You know, I’ve been presenting it to so many people, this is the kind of feedback that I am getting and you want to be able to change it and by the time you actually get to the semifinals or National finals, I find with that competition, at least for my drink, I was so sick of this drink. I wish I could do anything else. I wish I could fix it. I wish I could change something about it. You’re so locked into that drink that you have to get up there, put a smile on your face, present it. Here it is, here’s my drink. Great, right. The honest truth was if I could have changed certain things about that drink I absolutely would have. In certain ways that is reflective of what we do behind the bar too where it’s like sometimes you’ll get a drink on the menu and you have to make certain changes or certain concessions to it and it changes from what you originally wanted it to be and you are either happy with that or you might have someone else’s drink on your menu and you’re like, this isn’t my favourite but I understand what its merits are and how to present it properly.
BA: Got any tips for anyone looking to compete?
JG: I have five –
- Use the brand. If you show up to a Patron competition and you start pouring a different tequila, that’s a fail. You think that sounds ridiculous but I have seen this so many times at competitions where someone is all, okay, I am here, I am going to make you this. I am supposed to be using this one rum but I am going to make this with another rum because I like it better.
- Don’t enter a competition if you don’t like the spirit. Someone doing a vodka competition saying I don’t really like vodka but this is my vodka cocktail is not going to win.
- Be clean behind the bar. Picking up the ice with your hands, touching it, touching your face, touching your hair – don’t do any of that. You should be as clean and as put together as possible.
- Run on time. Going over time. If you have six minutes, stick to six minutes. Find some sort of system to stay under that. There is no reason to go over time.
- Make the drink exceptional. Not good enough, exceptional
Thank you, James for spending your time with us.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.