“Don’t worry, it’s not blood,” the bartender assured me as he patted my arm with a bar towel. The judge’s table I was sitting behind was strewn with broken glass, beer suds and what looked like arterial spray but was, in fact, bitters.
It was late February, during the third round of the Jameson Bartenders March Madness competition in Philadelphia, which required competitors to pour shots and a Guinness and carry them on a tray as fast as possible to the judges’ table without spilling anything—using their non-dominant hand. The poor competitor who was trying to dry me off had slipped and delivered most of his tray sideways onto the table and my lap, causing the mostly intoxicated audience packed inside Fado Irish Pub to burst into laughter.
He did not end up graduating to the fourth and final round, in which the last two standing bartenders went head-to-head to mix the best Manhattan. In the course of that match-up, one of the bartenders tore his shirt off and flexed his bare chest to the roar of the crowd, before putting the shirt back on and delivering his drinks to the judges with all the assiduous tact of a waiter at Per Se. He won.
For people who have attended more than a few bartending competitions, none of the above will seem surprising. These contests have become an omnipresent part of the bar industry, often capturing the madcap, whiskey-soaked spirit of a bar’s post-shift scene. They are beloved by brands and brand reps, grudgingly tolerated or enthusiastically pursued by bartenders and mostly mystifying to the general public.
Many, like the one I judged, are sponsored by a single spirit, operating mainly as a pretext to get some bartenders together, hand out swag and indulge in friendly shit-talking. Others are deadly serious affairs—events that participants train for year-round, developing highly conceptual, often outlandish drinks for a chance to win prizes that can transform a career. The Heaven Hill “Bartender of the Year” nets $15,000 in prize money, while victors in Diageo’s World Class bar competition get a job for a year traveling the world as a brand ambassador, an appointment which often sets them up for lucrative positions as bar and liquor consultants afterward.
But in spite of the frequency of these competitions, it remains difficult to see how exactly they came to such prominence in the world of bars. And, further, how much of bartending culture they really reflect.
According to legend, cocktail godfather Harry Johnson took home the prize in history’s first cocktail competition in New Orleans in 1869, winning out over four other bartenders who were all representing different cities. By the early 1900s, the Police Gazette, the paper of record for the sporting set, hosted bartending competitions in which bartenders across the country sent in recipes. The creators of the most imaginative drinks mixed them in person and were judged on accuracy and speed; winners got a medal and their cocktail published in the newspaper.
The fact that cocktail contests predate the dawn of the liquor mega-brands who now run the competition scene suggests that there is something innate in the craft or its practitioners that tends towards organized one-upmanship. There’s no doubt that bartenders—a group that counts among its ranks many charming egoists with a flair for the theatrical—like to compete. In my brief time behind a bar, I witnessed quibbles over who made the most tips, who made drinks fastest, who could drink the most shots, who could free-pour the best Daiquiri, who got the most phone numbers in a night and who won late-night arm wrestling contests, among other useful and useless metrics of success.
But some members of the trade see a higher purpose in this predilection to compete—especially those who came up in the ‘90s, when cocktail bartending was finding a new, more respectable identity for itself. “All of this is really a function, I think, of the end of the last millennium, when the profession actually started to become a profession again,” says craft bartending pioneer Dale DeGroff.
During his epochal reign at New York City’s Rainbow Room, the bartenders he hired had to undergo a rigorous training program that stressed many of the elements that cocktail competitions today typically test for. The competitions helped legitimize the idea that there were genuine skills one had to know—culinary, physical, interpersonal—in order to be a good bartender, acquired through education and logging time behind the stick.
Speed (tempered to some degree by quality) seems to be the least common denominator of competitions, making some sort of showing in nearly every bartending contest. It’s a testament to the universal importance of fleetness in a service industry—from hole-in-the-walls to temples of mixology—and a reminder of the physicality and athleticism that the job demands.
“If you can say, ‘I made these drinks perfectly in this amount of time,’ even dive bar bartenders are going to say, ‘Okay,’” says cocktail historian David Wondrich, who has been judging competitions for nearly 15 years. “It’s profession-wide. There’s no one who doesn’t value those skills.”
Of the speed-based competitions, none is quite as fast and furious as the legendary “It’s a Rematch Beeyatch!” Founded by Australian bar owner Paul Mant after he and a buddy missed out on a chance to go head-to-head in a speed round of London’s Tiki-Off, Rematch is a brutal, all-out sprint. Each contestant is timed as they simultaneously make two Daiquiris, a Mojito, a Zombie, a Planter’s Punch, a Caipirinha, a Piña Colada, a Cuba Libre and a Mai Tai, and open a can of beer, as fast as they can. Poor marks in quality, cleanliness and technique can add time back on to their split. Bobby Hiddleston, bar manager at London’s Callooh Callay, has logged the fastest time to date at one minute and 24 seconds, plus a five-second penalty, making for a total time of one minute and 29 seconds.
The event has become so popular around the world that a whole school of techniques (of otherwise dubious utility) has been born out of it. But it’s the raw, almost gladiatorial atmosphere of the event itself—the crowd screaming itself hoarse, music blasting from the speakers, the bartender a frenzied whirling dervish, the host egging the madness on—that’s made it truly infectious. “We wanted it to be bartender Fight Club, and that’s what it’s become,” says Mant.
At the other end of the spectrum are matches like the glitzy World Class competition sponsored by Diageo, which purports to find the world’s best bartender each year via a series of contests that climax in a final round in some exotic locale. The winner of the 2014 World Class, Charles Joly (the first American to take the prize), triumphed with an immersive performance that evoked Scotland’s capricious weather. Sunny classical music played as he built his drink, before switching to a dark tonal tune as the lights went down and assistants helped mimic storm effects—water was splashed on judges, who had been given umbrellas, to simulate rain—and aromatic vapor poured out of the cocktail, which was built in a coffee vacuum pot.
“You need a tremendous amount of organization to keep it together and not stress the small stuff,” says Joly of his preparation for the presentation. In the end, the effort paid off, he says. “The effects [of winning] have been life-changing for sure. Many doors are opened.”
It isn’t always just about guts, individual glory and cash, however—a number of these events also have a communitarian bent, organized to help support members of the bartending industry or a larger social cause. One of the most well-known of this breed is Speed Rack, an all-female contest that takes place in cities around the U.S. and helps raise money for breast cancer research and prevention. Founders Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero started the event to give a feminist face to the cocktail bartending movement and to disrupt the impression that making drinks was a solely a man’s game. Much like Rematch, the contests are loud, bawdy and adrenaline-laced. Because of what Speed Rack stresses—quickness and mastery of classics—winning functions as a badge of honor in a way that innovating a five-ingredient Drambuie cocktail for a corporate contest does not.
But the way in which competitions may be most reflective of bartending culture is how they elevate the performative aspect of the profession. Competitions simulate in a literal fashion the spotlight that follows every bartender. They underscore the ability to maintain composure, whether under the gaze of a two-deep crowd of impatient customers or a national cocktail authority. One of Wondrich’s favorite moments from his years of judging was when a quick-thinking bartender, whose nerves had caused his hands to start shaking while he was building a drink, looked up and said, “And now I am aerating the spirit in the jigger.”
When these contests gather together some of the more confident performers in the trade, it’s a reminder why we usually fight for a seat at the bar rather than a table. Practiced at the highest level, bartending—with its dazzling mix of poise and speed, the balletic and the mechanical—is just damn fun to behold. “It’s like watching a really good athlete,” say Mix. “It’s the pleasure of seeing someone who’s excellent at their craft being excellent at it.”