Professional bartenders, are you ready for this year’s Chivas Masters competition? You can register and submit your recipes until March 19, then it’s on to stage two: the national finals in New York on May 14. The final competition heads to Tokyo in July to crown one deserving bartender with the Chivas Master title. This year’s competition requires three cocktails: one that represents a classic cocktail, one that speaks to a local drink, and one that reflects Japanese culture.
Last week, we spoke with former winner Ben Rojo about how he pulled off his victory. This week, we're getting a judge's perspective. Kevin Denton, the National Mixologist at Pernod Ricard USA, will be one of the judges assessing cocktails at Chivas. He’s worked at WD-50, Tabla, Gramercy Terrace and more of New York City’s standout bars. Here, he offers his best tips for getting the judges’ attention during the Masters.
Do your research.
You’d think this is a given, but you should at least know how to make a proper cocktail. Denton says that so many times, he sees competitors who use great, outlandish ingredients — but forget to shake or stir the cocktail properly, or don’t chill their glass. No one wants a lukewarm cocktail that isn’t mixed well. The need for research extends beyond that basic understanding, too.
“We want to know that you’ve done some research and that you have a well thought out concept that you are approaching the competition with,” Denton says. “You need to draw influence. Rather than just using soy sauce because it’s in Tokyo, we need to know you are looking into some Japanese ingredients or traditions. Do something that shows that you care and you’re taking the competition seriously.”
Know the judges.
Don’t be afraid to do some research on the judges before you go. It can make a huge difference if you show you know who they are and where they’ve been — especially when they have to drink cocktail after cocktail. Play into something the judges enjoy, have worked with, or can reminisce about.
“If you know that I worked at WD-50 for example, you may try to throw some more molecular techniques into your cocktails because you know that probably appeals to me,” Denton says. “Doing a sour with the same ingredients you see in Whole Foods is not going to be as interesting as sourcing something really unique that the judges have never seen before, or that speaks to their hometown. I’m from Kansas City, so if I saw barbecue elements in something, I’d say, “Oh, that’s cool. They’re trying to play to the judges’ interests or backgrounds.’”
Have some personality.
This is the hospitality business; nobody wants a boring bartender. Remember that in the heat of competition and try to bring out the fun and funny.
“Serving people and drinking should be convivial,” Denton says. “Making some lighthearted remarks or carrying on a little bit with the judges goes a long way in helping the judge remember your performance.”
Check your garnish.
Denton makes two important points here: Don’t garnish with something unrelated to the drink, and make sure your garnish has a point.
“You drink with your eyes first,” he says. “If it’s a serious cocktail and it has a superfluous garnish, that’s less exciting to me. If it is a tongue-in-cheek garnish where it adds to the overall concept of the drink, that makes more sense. I tend to like functional garnishes. When I see something like a star anise pod floating in a drink, that turns me off. If someone didn’t know what it was and they bit it, that’s very unpleasant.”
Overall, edible garnishes are best, but if you must use an inedible one, be sure it plays to the concept. Denton has used inedibles like shuttlecocks as garnishes in the past — but he always had a reason for it, and it always had either an effect on the overall drink or a solid purpose in the cocktail.
Be open to inspiration.
Tokyo is a fount of creative inspiration. The unique spots to visit, shimmering lights and sheer quantity of people make it a destination for anyone looking for a place to learn and explore. Use that to your advantage.
“It’s such a dynamic city,” Denton says. “That, to me, is the big motivation.”
He also noted how important it is to be social and open to learning from new people you meet at the competition. In Shanghai last year, Denton says he was constantly surprised by the people he met who were at once like minded and incredibly different from him.
“We become more creative by surrounding ourselves with creative people,” he says. “When you get to a global competition level, it’s really inspiring for your own craft.”