Behind the Bar

Inside the Mind of A Cocktail Competition Judge

A man in a blue suit.
Gary Hayward, a brand ambassador for Bombay Sapphire who’s judged at competitions from the UK’s Bartender of the Year to Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender, believes the most important thing in a cocktail competition is understanding the theme and letting the right spirit shine. Photo via Gary Hayward.

Bartending competitions — like the ones held yearly at Tales — can be a great way to jumpstart your career. It’s a chance to start building a reputation as a skilled bartender and introduces you to people who can help you later down the line, whether you’re looking to move to another bar or pursue a career working for a spirits company. But the competition can be intimidating. We talked to Gary Hayward, a brand ambassador for Bombay Sapphire who’s judged at competitions from the UK’s Bartender of the Year to Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender, for his advice on how to impress your judges.

Know the rules

Most competitions are centered around a spirit or theme and have strict rules about what you can include. Follow them and make sure your drink actually highlights the spirit. Yes, it’s obvious advice, but Hayward says that it’s common to reject wonderful, deliciously inventive drinks because they don’t fit the theme: “This goes for any competition — the theme has to be the number one priority. If it’s a gin competition, Bombay Sapphire has to be the star,” says Hayward. “We’ve had drinks in the past that are amazing, they’re beautiful, they smell nice, but the issue is that we couldn’t taste the gin. Make sure the spirit is the shining star. Because otherwise it could be any cocktail, any spirit.”

It’s natural to want to show off your palate. But all that creativity should go to highlighting the spirit, not just throwing together intriguing combinations of ingredients. Think about all aspects and notes of the spirit and break down exactly what you’re tasting and what you want to emphasize. If you’re working on a gin cocktail, it’s not enough to only accentuate the juniper notes, Hayward says.

“I want to taste the citrus notes, I want some earthiness, and I still want to be able to taste the spiciness at the back end,” he says. “It’s not necessarily ingredients or style or serving, but I want to be able to taste not just the juniper notes — I want to be able to taste the subtle nuances that are in the gin.”

Also make sure to research the spirit’s history and brand: how do they present themselves? How do they want to be thought of? Is there any part of their history you can acknowledge in your cocktail, whether in developing the drink itself or the name? Judges want to know that you’ve done your research, and any way you can demonstrate that is a smart move.

Practice your technical skills

The sad fact is that no matter how good your cocktail is — no matter if it perfectly fits the theme and is the best tasting — it won’t do well if your technique is sloppy. Many of the events Hayward works include a separate judge representing the International Bartenders Association, who scores categories like neatness and cleanliness. And even if your competition doesn’t have an IBA judge, their rules are a good guideline: things like spills, over pouring, and grabbing a glass from the top can be deadly to your score. Practice as much as you can, in different situations and in different environments — you may be a mistake-free bartender at your home bar, but choke in unfamiliar settings.

Keeping your drink simple is also a good way to cut down on mistakes. The fewer ingredients and flourishes you have to keep track of, the less likely it is you’ll spill or make a mistake. It also makes it easier to stay within the time frame. You’ll be making several drinks in rapid succession, and you want to make them as streamlined as possible.

Don’t stress ...

It’s easy to fall victim to imposter syndrome or nerves at a big competition, but don’t let them get in the way of making a great drink. If you’re nervous about public speaking, read up on strategies to improve. Focus on the drink and the judges and interact with them like you would a patron at your bar: with politeness and respect, but not fear. Try to tune out the rest of it and just focus on your cocktail. You’ve made thousands of drinks in your life. This is just one more.

... But also bring your A game

Hayward stresses that professionalism is also key. “Treat it like a job interview,” he says. “Dress smart, look nice, look presentable, be nice, be charming.”

Channel your inner beauty pageant contestant: make eye contact, smile more than you think is necessary and avoid swearing — one of Hayward’s pet peeves (“Some people are too relaxed”). It may be helpful to film yourself both making the drink and talking about it, or to ask a brutal friend for feedback. The goal is to figure out how you come across: do you have a random eye twitch? Do you touch your face or hair when you’re nervous? Is your smile more Hannibal than Denzel? It’s also helpful to time yourself, to make sure you’ll be able to make all the drinks in the allotted time frame.

Also come up with a bulletproof pitch for your drink, what the judges should be noticing and the story behind it. Think American Idol: emphasize how it’s different from other drinks and show personality with some charming anecdotes. Share your thought process and demonstrate that you’ve done the research about why this drink is the perfect way to highlight this particular spirit.

“Tell a story, and tell your own story,” says Hayward. “Remember that nobody can tell anybody what they can taste or smell. Let the judges figure it out but also guide them along. If there’s a certain flavoring or ingredient that’s in there, ask the judges to look for it.”

Shelby Pope is a writer in Berkeley.

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