In our cutthroat, ultracapitalist, dog-eat-dog society, everything eventually becomes a competition. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that as the cocktail revival hit full steam in the aughts, the cocktail competition followed closely behind.
Although the International Bartenders Association (IBA) first held a championship as early as 1955, modern cocktail competitions wouldn’t arrive until 2007, when Bombay’s Most Imaginative Bartender launched in 16 cities, attracting 240 entrants. Though relatively recent in world history, by the breakneck standards of evolution in the modern cocktail world, the early days of competitions were eons ago. At that time, seminal bars like New York’s Death & Co. and PDT were just opening their doors, now-ubiquitous classic cocktails like the Negroni and Sazerac had yet to ascend to prominence, and modern classics like the Penicillin and bacon fat–washed Benton’s Old-Fashioned hadn’t even escaped New York.
(Notably, the flair bartending world had been holding a number of competitions years before the craft cocktail world instituted its own.)
Given the cocktail world’s rapid acceleration over the past decade-plus, we wondered what we might glean from looking back at over 50 winning cocktails from the industry’s top competitions—IBA World Cocktail Championship, Bombay’s Most Imaginative Bartender (MIB), Diageo World Class and Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition. Here’s what we learned from surveying the champions.
When Fresh Was Optional (2000–2009)
In the early 2000s, it was still possible to win a major cocktail competition with something that wouldn’t look out of place at a chain restaurant today. Across the IBA winners from the late aughts, championship cocktails featured ingredients that are rarely stocked today—prepackaged “mojito mint” syrup, chocolate-orange liqueur, passion fruit schnapps, Disaronno and a ton of full-fat dairy. This was a time when fresh juice and housemade ingredients were hardly a given and flavored vodka was not yet a punchline. Even as recently as 2009, Slovakia’s Vladimir Banák was able to claim the IBA World Cocktail Championship with a drink featuring Absolut Raspberri, crème de cassis, strawberry and vanilla syrups, and a generous float of cream.
Yet fresher, more inventive cocktails were already arriving at the two other competitions. (Bacardi Legacy began in 2013.) Aristotelis Papadopoulos of Banquet in Thessaloniki, Greece claimed the first Diageo World Class title in 2009 with his Discernment Blue made of Johnnie Walker Blue Label—part of competition sponsor Diageo’s portfolio—Greek saffron, fresh mint leaves, lime juice and agave syrup.
Bitter Competitors (2010–2013)
Almost instantly, as the next decade arrived, drinks became drier and less goofy, gin (mostly) replaced vodka, and fresh juices, syrups and tinctures finally emerged alongside more esoteric and challenging modifiers and garnishes. 2010’s World Class winner, Erik Lorincz then of the Connaught in London, won with Rising to the Sky, which combined gin, fino sherry, and fresh yuzu and pineapple juices, garnished with fresh coriander.
Admittedly, vodka hadn’t completely been eighty-sixed just yet—Greta Grönholm from Finland would nab 2013’s IBA title with My Green Summer, employing pear-flavored Grey Goose. But, simultaneously, more bitter and herbal ingredients were emerging, as in 2013’s World Class winner David Rios’s Punch & Glass. A base of Johnnie Walker Gold Label was modified with Amer Picon bitter aperitif, hinting at where the zeitgeist was headed.
That same year, at Bacardi’s inaugural Legacy Cocktail Competition, The Knight Cup from Russia’s Elizaveta Evdokimova featured the requisite light rum, but she too would bolster her base with a bitter, herbal ingredient: Cynar, at the time a fairly unknown amaro outside the industry.
East Meets West (2014–2017)
By mid-decade, more sophisticated techniques—infusions, fat-washing, dehydrated ingredients—began to appear and presentation mattered more than ever before. (See: Charles Joly of the avant-garde The Aviary claiming 2014 World Class with Above the Clouds, a rum-based cocktail served in a glass globe with smoking dry ice—perhaps foretelling the Instagram era soon to dictate drink-building.)
The Daiquiri was undoubtedly the cocktail of this moment. Tom Walker, then of the American Bar at The Savoy in London, won 2014’s Legacy with what he dubbed a 21st-century version, featuring absinthe and fresh cucumber. Franck Dedieu, of Redwood in Lyon, would Frenchify his 2015 Legacy winner, dubbed Le Latin, by adding white wine, lemon juice and olives.
At the same time, Asian influence (via Chinese, Japanese and Indian ingredients) also began to dominate flavor profiles. Schuyler Hunton, of Boston’s Tiger Mama, was 2016’s Most Imaginative Bartender winner; his Breakfast in Bombay featured a grapefruit–Earl Grey oleo saccharum. When GN Chan, then of Angel’s Share in New York, won Legacy the same year, he created an Eastern take on the Piña Colada with the additions of cucumber juice and sesame oil.
By the end of the decade, fittingly, it was Asian bartenders, like Japan’s Kenji Tsubokura (IBA 2016) and Korean-born, Singapore-based Bannie Kang (World Class 2019), as well as Thailand’s Praphakorn Konglee and Ronnaporn Kanivichaporn (Legacy 2019 and 2021), who would start claiming titles using ingredients endemic to their native lands, including yuzu (in Tsubokura’s The Best Scene) and Thai basil (gracing Konglee’s Out of Sight and Kanivichaporn’s Pink Me Up).
Martinis and Minimalism (2018–today)
After years of profligacy in mixology, zero-waste cocktails have taken center stage, with the ethos often a critical part of the storytelling behind modern winners’ creations. Such was the case with Carly Gaskin’s 2018 MIB-winning drink, Geb’s Reviver, fittingly named after the Egyptian god of the earth; it featured gin and matcha powder along with repurposed lemon hulls and pineapple skin.
As part of this eco-minded approach, powdered acids have also become key ingredients of the era, frequently used in conjunction with or in lieu of fresh citrus. A stripped-down minimalism has mostly replaced the massive, dozen-ingredient drinks, with idiosyncratic takes on the Martini becoming the surest shortcut to victory.
This wave began with Annie Williams Pierce, then of Curio in Columbus. In 2017, she became the first female winner of MIB with her London x Tokyo, a Martini variant using a Persian lime olive oil–washed gin and snap pea–infused vermouth. Likewise, Miami-based bartender Valentino Longo won 2020’s MIB with The Decisive Moment. Another elegant riff on the Martini, he used gin, sherry, fortified bergamot liqueur and a sherry-lactic blend. It was then topped with one large drop of coconut-infused olive oil, followed by three smaller drops of coffee-infused balsamic vinegar, creating a stunning contrast on the surface of the drink.
This past July saw the first fully virtual World Class finals (last year’s event was canceled altogether). Canada’s James Grant claimed the title, in part, by making a Martini riff with minimal waste. His Kickstart Martini included vodka and Ramazzotti amaro, along with a syrup made from spent coffee grounds. The mix of Martini and environmental impact was a perfect display—even over Zoom—of what victory looks like today.
Photos courtesy of Bacardi.