Competing in Cocktail Competitions for me is not about winning, I entered these competitions to better my abilities. Competitions are more about personal growth than winning a bottle or holiday. I know great bartenders who have used competitions to overcome their fear of public speaking, because of this, they have travelled around the world, spoken in front of huge crowds and made fantastic drinks at the same time. You can’t learn everything from being in a bar, to become a great bartender you need to push yourself, learn new techniques, try new flavours, competitions are a great way of doing this. Get as much personal growth out of competitions as you can…
This article is to show my thought process and how I started to theme a drink for a competition. Every competition is different and as such my process may be slightly different for each entry. This is also not a guide to winning a competition, as there are too many factors that play in to each competition It could simply be that a judge preferred another cocktail or that they’ve seen your idea before, so never be put off by not winning. Judging is, after all, subjective.
Unfortunately, there won’t be any step-by-step pictures to go along with the article, as during the process I was never expecting to write this. So on…
I was invited to participate in a cocktail competition for Jack Daniel's.
Jack has never been a product I’ve promoted, not because of a dislike for the product itself, but because it is already so highly represented that never saw a need to advocate for it. However, this competition was one I didn’t want to pass up.
When the competition first arose, I did as I always I do (and would recommend as a first step to all competitors) and read the contest rules.
They were as follows:
Minimum 35ml Jack Daniels Old No7
5 ingredients Max
Must represent the spirit of Jack Daniels
When reviewing these rules, they were simple but there was clearly an idea of what Bacardi wanted to see in the competition. “Must represent the spirit of Jack Daniels". This meant to win I had to represent the spirit of Jack Daniels. To understand the brand, I had some research to do, hoping to better understand what the spirit of the brand truly was.
As I was researching, I couldn’t find a piece of the brand which I felt I wanted to express through my drink. All I was finding as I brought up the brand was standard American whisky history and references to both Harley Davidson and Rock ‘n’ Roll. While Harley Davidson could provide some interesting theme ideas, there was something to Rock ‘n’ Roll which seemed fun, loud and out-there: a perfect match for Jack.
My next step was taking this more-specified theme and creating a drink that was noticeably related to Rock and Roll. How was I going to do that? Well, the thought process starts the same as any other, with the spit-balling of ideas. It's unlikely you’ll hit the jackpot with your first thought, so always keep the ball rolling. Here were some of my first ideas: Garnish the drink with a drum stick, Make a drug infused jack (clearly that wasn't going to work). Trash the bar before I leave… (probably not be appreciated). I kept thinking, and then I had a real idea.
My Lightbulb Moment
It wasn't long before I found a video documenting Jack Daniel's marketing techniques the brand has used over the years.
The video showed countless ways in which Jack Daniel's have used music as a part of their marketing plans. One in particular stood out to me, was how Jack Daniels had used an old blues track called ‘I'm a King Bee’ which they'd had commissioned into a rock track by rock band The Stone Foxes - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xvEtts_67AU
The track was commissioned as a part of the Jack Daniels american marketing campaign for Jack Daniel's Tennessee Honey.
Now, the rules of the competition clearly stated you were to use Jack Daniel's Old No7, so as not to try and cheat the judges I stuck with Old No, but decided to add a honey element to my drink in order to tie in the Tennessee Honey marketing vibe.
I began by playing with this idea of honey. I found that using straight honey was too thick; it didn't shake well, and quickly became too cumbersome.
My alternative was to use a honey syrup which mixed much more easily with other liquids. (Honey Syrup is 1 Part Honey to 1 Part warm water, stirred together until dissolved).
While going through this competition, I was playing with a lot of flavours which I was just discovering. Tonka bean being one of them so I was keen to introduce this to my drink. Having also just been introduced to Noix St Jean, a red fortified wine infused with green walnuts, I felt this could play well with my theme. As Noix St Jean is a flavoursome red wine, it seemed a bit more 'Rock n Roll' than other ingredients. Feel free to disagree with me, I just don’t see Rock ‘n’ Rollers drinking a white wine Spritz but a more robust flavoursome red.As the drink was evolving it started to take on a whole Honey and Nut feel… but in a more refined, delicate way than perhaps your typical Kellogg's. I finally came up with the following:
The Final spec:
35ml Jack Daniels Old N07
10ml Noix St Jean
5ml Tonka dean Esprit
10ml Honey & Butter Syrup
3 Dash Kola Nut Bitters
Ice: Carved Ice Cube
I was happy with the drink and its theme, I had managed to get exactly the elements I wanted. However, just having a good theme and great tasting drink will not be nearly good enough if you want to secure top prize. I felt that for me to win, my presentation would need to be on par with the drink.
As with all cocktail competitions, my presentation was very important to me. There is nothing worse than giving a boring presentation, there are almost always points given for this aspect of your entry and you don’t want to look out because you didn’t entertain the judges. After all, as bartenders are as much entertainers as we are servers.
I decided to continue the ‘Rock n Roll’ theme and use the Stone Foxes song within the presentation. First thought was to have the song playing in the background, which seemed obvious. The more I thought of this, the more I figured that rock music was meant to be played loudly. It was this thought that lead me to expand on an idea I had seen done by a friend: a silent performance. A silent performance meant doing the presentation without speaking and instead use signs to give my information. This, I felt, would really embrace the spirit of Jack Daniels.
As drink trends have gone, you can’t just give a drink anymore, you have to give a serve. This means you have to make the glass, garnish, and accompaniments become a continuation of the drink.
My first idea was to serve the drink on a vinyl record, but felt this didn’t extend my ‘Rock n Roll’ theme. I came to the decision of serving the drink on a base guitar I had at home. As it was a broken black and white fender bass. I removed the neck, headstock and strings, and hey presto, had a serving platform. Finally, to up the anti, I was to serve the drink with a piece of honey comb, a honey spoon and a half drank bottle of Jack Daniels No7.
As I mentioned, I had other ideas I played with for a long time. At one point, I was going to serve my drink with a side of pulled pork, I thought it fits with the idea of street food you would see at an American ‘Rock n Roll’ festival. This idea proposed more problems than it solved, I'm no cook, I would need the food to be as good as my drink. In the time I had there just wasn't space for trial and error. Finally, as the competition was being held at someone else venue, I couldn’t guarantee the food would be warm, so this idea soon got dropped.
This drink was my favourite competition entry to date. The kicker of course, was that never managed to make it to the competition! The venue had to change the competition time, the day before the event. I had been off gallivanting in the wild with a group of bartenders and wouldn’t make it home in time, so all this effort went to waste.
My placement in the competition however is irrelevant, my point from all this is the length I feel you have to go, the areas you have to explore, in order to place yourself at the top. The days of just entering a cocktail that tastes nice have passed, now there are a lot mare factors to consider which surpass the liquid itself.
It’s hard to pin point what you ‘should’ do or how you ‘should’ do it, every competition is different and should be approached in its own unique way.
However, if I had to give soma pieces of advice, they would be as follows:
Don’t always go with your first idea, sometimes this works, sometimes not.
Think beyond the liquid. Play with all the senses to create an experience, not just a cocktail.
Don’t be scared to try something new or daring.
Finally, the biggest piece of advice I can give is to have fun with it
Never enter a competition to win, rather enjoy creating an experience and pushes the boundaries of your experience. Let's face it, when else was I going to be able to serve a drink on a bass guitar?
Hopefully you'll I have taken something away from a I this, best of luck in all your competitions to come. Thanks for reading.