One of the most emblematic scenes of Drink Masters, a cocktail-making competition series that debuted on Netflix earlier this year, could double as a cruel childhood prank on an unsuspecting palate. Into a stainless steel tabletop still went a mash of black olives—the foamy, drab gray sludge looking not unlike the burnt sugar that seeps out of a well-roasted sweet potato—and what emerged from the distillation tubes was a liquid as clear as crystal. It was the backbone ingredient to one of the most interesting cocktails made in the series: “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost,” a punch composed of rhum agricole, olive tapenade distillate, jerk spices and citrus.
Conceptualized by Tao, a Tunisian-born traveling bartender based in Montreal, the cocktail, and every shot documenting its construction, was precisely what I was hoping to see out of a competition series dedicated to the murky realms of mixology. Tao makes a fairly left-field connection based on the breadth of his globetrotting: The robust, earthy funk of olives provides structure to the similarly funky flavors of rhum agricole. “There’s no connection between olives and the Caribbean,” Tao says, albeit incorrectly, given the olive’s prominence in Cuban, Puerto Rican and Dominican cuisines. “There is olive notes that I personally pick up in those type of rums.”
With his wide-brimmed hats, septum piercing and a penchant for making even the wildest flavor combinations feel almost pragmatic in composition, Tao looks the part of a newborn star. That alone is noteworthy. While countless celebrity chefs have been made through televised exposure over the decades, even the best bartenders have stared through a glass darkly—their influence may cross over, but their names and visage never quite materialize in a mainstream context. Drink Masters’ contribution to modern bartending is unlikely to be its ability to churn out celebrities, or even offer an accurate depiction of the upper echelons of mixology. The question, perhaps, is whether it can give shape to the bartender as a keenly creative force, and not an object of ridicule.
“Suddenly we’re transported back to the mid-aughts, to the heart of what made the molecular mixology trend so repulsive, even though the contestants themselves have clearly moved beyond that ethos.”
Drink Masters isn’t the first drinks-based competition produced for video, but it might as well be. In 2008, Absolut sponsored a shoddy Top Chef knockoff called On the Rocks: The Search for America’s Top Bartender, produced by LXTV, the company responsible for those lifestyle and human interest shows that air on NBC on Saturday afternoons. It was an online exclusive back then, but if it weren’t for a trailer available on YouTube and an IMDb entry, you’d be forgiven for thinking it never happened. One of the few things Drink Masters and On the Rocks have in common is the same $100,000 grand prize, despite more than a decade of inflation and an almost incomprehensible boost in production value. Alas, in a boozy competition, it’s not the competition element that requires proof of concept, it’s the mixology.
The format of Drink Masters should register as comfort food for anyone who has watched any kind of popular food programming over the past two decades: Twelve contestants compete in various themed challenges, each with an all-but-impossible time limit. Every week, one bartender is eliminated. It is a time-tested formula, and Drink Masters largely succeeds because it’s based on a can’t-fail template of TV-making, combined with Papa Netflix’s arsenal of the latest high-speed imaging technology to make garnishing a cocktail look like placing the finishing strokes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
And like other Netflix reality shows (e.g., The Circle), there is a notable punching bag, the contestant whose book begs to be judged by its cover—and who is swiftly eliminated as a result. It is no big spoiler to say that the first person eliminated on Drink Masters is an Instagram influencer. Her first drink is a Margarita inspired by the Aperol Spritz. It bores judge and renowned New York bar owner Julie Reiner to tears, but it’s crushable, because of course it is; her redemptive shot to stave off elimination is a staid variation on a Negroni, because of course it is. The first send-off serves as a sort of mission statement on what the judges are not looking for, and what the show as a whole hopes to surpass.
Yet, somehow, for all the “elevation” that the judges are seeking out of the contestants, Drink Masters feels largely paint-by-numbers, lacking the specificity of vision that some of the best cooking competition shows exude. It doesn’t showcase the heartwarming charm of human foibles like The Great British Bake Off; it doesn’t have the drama or game theory of Top Chef; it doesn’t trace each contestant’s arc of improvement like MasterChef Australia; and it doesn’t home in on technical mastery like Great British Menu. While it’s a diverse pool of contestants all inspired by home and heritage, there are few glimpses into their interior lives; we’re not even privy to the bars or establishments that they work for. But maybe, most glaringly, it doesn’t quite bear the responsibility inherent in being a TV show that centers booze.
As with most cooking competitions, the viewer is presented with a rough sketch of the finished product and all of the ingredients, and then snapped into the frenzied reality of having to bring that idea to fruition. Therein lies the inherent tension within the show’s parameters: Audiences have been primed for years to understand how a dish might be constructed; relaying the thought process behind a novel cocktail isn’t as common. Most viewers require associative language to make sense of, say, why Cynar and peach schnapps belong together, or why infusing whiskey with Comté cheese is actually a winning concept and not utterly horrifying. Being able to understand—and, further, crave—a cocktail requires evocative description and senses other than sight.
In the shadow of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, presenting a full-spectrum feast for the eyes has, unfortunately, become the overriding imperative for food and drink shows. Drink Masters obliges without considering how much color is lost when you can’t conceive of how certain spirits smell, taste or feel. But the timed element of the show and the clear priorities in production practically force the contestants into putting forth overwrought visual spectacles that are more extra than excellent. Suddenly, we’re transported back to the mid-aughts, to the heart of what made the molecular mixology trend so repulsive, even though the contestants themselves have clearly moved beyond that ethos.
“Drink Masters is at its most relatable in the moments where the bartender is met with the same specter of unknowability in a cocktail that the drinker feels just after ordering one.”
At times, the show vibrantly presents the creative process as it can be: so messy and overly ambitious that the notion of killing your darlings becomes a game of Whac-A-Mole. Drink Masters is at its most relatable in the moments where the bartender is met with the same specter of unknowability in a cocktail that the drinker feels just after ordering one. Like any show of its ilk, the viewer falls into the rhythms of the competition: Milk punches were almost unanimously lauded; daubing the inside of a glass with edible paint was an exercise in futility. For all of the pooh-poohing of the term “mixology” and how pretentious it can all come across, the thing about these competition shows is that watching requires a level of buy-in into that world. Once you accept the premise, it’s just 12 contestants who are very, very good at what they do given all the resources available to succeed. The abstraction of pretense and appearances dissipates when everyone is on a level playing field. (However, the insistence upon crafting vermouth caviar with agar-agar still induced a few eye rolls.)
That level playing field held a weightier significance for some contestants more than others. Kate, a veteran bartender and club owner out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, enters the competition with an edge honed from two decades of grinding in a male-dominated industry. There is a clear generational divide: She stands in contrast to the younger women on the show, who seem more at ease in being playful, or even reserved. “I like to think of myself as an unemotional person,” Kate says at one point, “but that’s a crock.” She defrosts a bit during her time on the show, surrounded by similarly gifted bartenders with fewer walls erected. In the Drink Masters environment, where the main competition is largely the tension between one’s imagination and one’s physical capacity, Kate’s drinks increasingly play on nostalgia, homesickness and introspection, to great effect.
It’s the kind of progression of skill and clarity that these types of pressure tend to draw out of people, and the kind of human arc that can help break preconceived notions of what mixology is or isn’t. Whether or not Drink Masters is capable of producing the kind of celebrity that more established cooking shows have seems beside the point. At the very least, it’s a glimpse of all that is expected of the modern bartender, which itself is a minor revelation.