Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Attention bartenders: Some cocktail contests are fixed

The 8 cocktails entered (ice has melted in some)
I was invited to judge a cocktail competition, and discovered it was fixed.

Here's what happened. A press release invited me to attend (and write about) a cocktail competition in San Francisco for a certain spirit I hadn't heard of; it was the regional contest, with the finals taking place on a Caribbean resort island.

I replied that I wasn't interested in standing in the audience, but would judge if they needed an extra palate. A couple days later the PR person contacted me to say they did need an extra judge and would be happy to have me.

I've judged cocktail contests in the past. They're great fun: less work than wine competitions, although you really can't spit. So I was excited when I showed up at the stylish downtown bar for the event.

I tried to interview the president of the company who created the spirit, but he wanted no part of talking to me, which struck me as weird. I was the only media of any kind there, and this guy in theory was trying to publicize his spirit, so why avoid me? It only made sense later.

The president of the spirits company, who lives in New York, was one judge; the second was a local spirits consultant, who was on a first-name basis with the bartenders. I was the third wheel, which was fine, as I was happy to be a tiebreaker vote and enjoy the show.

Two bartenders went simultaneously; each had 10 minutes to assemble his/her drink. They had to make four: one for each judge, and one for a display at the end of the bar. It was quite a show, as most brought exotic ingredients from home: chocolate bitters, honeycomb, flowers. One guy froze a stick of lavender into a huge ice ball and put another stick of lavender into the drink.

We had scoresheets to judge the drinks in a variety of areas: visual presentation, professionalism, interesting ingredients, appropriate name. I don't remember the categories exactly because they later confiscated the scoresheets.

Before the eventual winning drink was even in front of me, judge #2 (from now on I'll call him "The Fixer") told me, "Look how sophisticated this is." I don't remember what else he said, but it was the only drink he talked about beforehand, and while it was interesting, it wasn't more interesting than, say, the guy who cured strips of dried fruit in chiles and Campari.

I liked the drink in question, but it wasn't my favorite. Of the 8 drinks entered, it was my third favorite, although I will say for me there was a big dropoff after it; the fourth-best wasn't anywhere near as good. The Fixer kept oohing and ahing about it while we sampled it, and of course calling the bartender by his first name.

After we tried all 8, the other 2 judges went upstairs, but the spirits company president's assistant asked me to stay downstairs to take photos of the cocktails, as they had forgotten to bring a camera. Hoping to sell them the photos (why not? I'm in the media business to make money), I did so.

When I got upstairs The Fixer presented me the vote as a fait accompli: they were either going to pick his favorite cocktail, or one that I thought was probably 7th of 8: uninteresting visually, drying in the mouth, without the use of any ingredients that couldn't be found in a dive bar. I doubt I would have finished the glass had I ordered it in a bar.

I asked about the scoresheets. "Let me have yours," the company president said. I handed them over. I'm now a little regretful but let's keep perspective here: this was hardly a White House torture memo. He pocketed them and that's the last we heard of them.

I mentioned a drink that was my favorite. The Fixer said that the bartender who made it was, I forget his exact words and they matter, but the gist was: A slut who sleeps around. I said, But the drink is really good. The Fixer said: "She seems really good too, until the next morning. Then you regret it." That part I remember.

I also mentioned my second favorite drink, which was painstakingly complex, but the company president brought it back to the choice of drink A, which I liked, or drink B, which I hated. Those were my choices.

Now for a little more perspective. This wasn't a public contest staged on public property. It was a private event hosted in a bar held by a spirits company. This particular spirit, which I won't name (let's just call it "Township"), is not the sort of thing one would drink straight -- although if you did have it on the rocks, it's pretty tasty. Nonetheless, it's completely dependent on bartenders making drinks with it, and convincing their customers to order drinks made with it.

How do spirits companies entice bartenders to learn to use their spirit? With cocktail contests. I could write about how great this spirit is in a newspaper or magazine, but it wouldn't sell as many cases as a top bartender at a restaurant chain creating a cocktail with it that stays on the menu for months.

Which is exactly what the creator of the winning cocktail was: the top bartender at a highly visible upscale restaurant chain.

Now, if Township wants to give a free trip to a Caribbean resort to this bartender, so be it; that's perfectly legitimate business. Which is why I'm not naming names in this post; the match was fixed, but that's Township's business. I feel sorry for the other bartenders who had no chance of winning, and I'm writing this to let bartenders know that this may be the case more often than we realize. But bartenders have seen a lot; they probably know that already.

And there's an interesting postscript to this, which spurred me to write the blog post after all. I got another press release last week announcing the regional finalists in the competition, and the guy announced as the winner from San Francisco was NOT the one for whom the fix was in; it was the runner-up guy, who made the cocktail I thought I couldn't finish.

At first I was baffled: why bother to fix a competition, and then give the vacation to the runner-up? Then I remembered that the company president had said the winners were not allowed to bring guests to the finals, and if I remember correctly the fixed winner, who I diligently interviewed (before throwing my notebook away; I'm writing this from memory), was recently engaged or married and very much in love. So maybe he just didn't want to go.

I don't have the whole story, and if I wanted to make a big deal about it, I could easily call the actual winner and find out, or contact Township and get their excuse, or even find The Fixer and see what he has to say. But I'm not going to bother. Township can send whoever it wants on vacation: even a bartender who made a drink that one judge ranked 7th of 8.

But I do want to make sure that bartenders know that if you want to win a cocktail contest, there are three important steps:
1) Work for a big chain of bars or restaurants, or a liquor distributor
2) Don't sleep around.
3) If you do mess up on #2, don't be a woman.


Larry Brooks said...

How does the quote go from Casablanca? "I'm shocked, deeply shocked to find that gambling was going on in this establishment."

Adam Elmegirab said...

Shouldn't you have said, "This particular cocktail contest was rigged," and outed the brand for the fix instead of generalising that all comps are rigged?

W. Blake Gray said...

Adam: It's a good point. I have judged cocktail contests before where we judges decided the winner, and it seemed legit. This one did make me wonder about how often it happens, though.

I changed the headline. You may write your own blog post: "Some blog posts are hyperbolic."

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

As a good writer, I'm assuming you have photos and the contact info of that female bartender of dubious morals?

W. Blake Gray said...

You know, I actually do. But come on man, if I chose not to reveal the name of the spirit, ain't no way north of Hell I'm giving that out.

I will say to her if she's reading, and she might be, the cocktail was excellent, and with a legitimate judging system based on the scoresheets handed out, she might have won.

Anonymous said...

I know EXACTLY what spirit.... I was a regional finalist in a different region. The contest there was no different. Within 5 minutes of walking in the room I knew I should just pack up and go home. And for those who think I am jaded, I DID complain to the spirit producer, but not that I should have won, someone else stole the show... with his cocktail and his presentation and his talent. But he was an outsider with NO CHANCE of winning. I definitely should not have won, I know that, but the winner should definitely not have won either.... but then again, doing shots during the competition with the judges, and of course picking up the tab, will get you places i guess. The spirits producer blew me off, said the would get back to me. HA..... never heard back. No surprise there, I WAS surprised to see that after I brought this to their attention, they assured me that this IS IN NO WAY how their contests are ran, and assured me that changes would be made, well...... let's just say I was a bit shocked to read this article!