Sweaty palms, beating heart, shaking hands; these can all be symptoms of preparing to propose marriage, singing in front of thousands of people, or entering a mixology competition.
Mixology competitions have become a big deal for anyone in the bartending industry, as they can lead to lucrative deals with brands and possibly new careers. In Cayman, there are several competitions per year and the level of talent to be seen at them is quite boggling. There are amazing flourishes and presentation, but in the end, the drink has to taste good.
Fede Gisbert Johnson – competitor
Fede Gisbert Johnson of Backroom Bar was preparing to head to Berlin and represent the Cayman Islands at the Diageo World Class Competition when we spoke to him about his experiences as a competitor.
Nervousness is just part of the fun, according to Fede. When asked if he was nervous the first time he competed, he replied, “Yeah, of course; I’m still nervous every time I compete [laughs].”
He has entered about 20 competitions in his career thus far, and so has good advice for anyone considering joining the fray.
“It is a big sacrifice, and can be a big headache [laughs], but you’ll learn a lot and push yourself to limits you never knew you had,” he says.
“You’ll meet fantastic people from all over the world and get offered great opportunities.”
The advance preparation for a serious competition can be intense and long. “You could be two days or two months working on a cocktail,” says Fede. “It’s like having an idea and making it come to life.”
“I have been preparing four months for Berlin,” he says, revealing that he has been trying to get to this point – being a world competitor – for three years.
For Fede, making a great cocktail is all about your customer. “How much you know about that person can really help you to make them a great drink,” he says. “Everyone has a different palate.”
Simon Crompton – brand ambassador and judge
Simon Crompton, Diageo Reserve Brand Ambassador, almost shivers when he thinks back to his time as a competitor. He won the local World Class competition in 2013, and subsequently was approached to a brand ambassador. He is now a judge at mixology events and admits that competition has become fierce in the last five years.
“We are definitely catching up with the rest of the world,” Simon says. “The stuff you see in molecular bars in Hong Kong and Singapore, these guys are doing it here.
“We’ve now got 10-to-15 bartenders on the island that are really pushing the boundaries; I would hate to go up against them in competition now.”
Simon agrees that participating in these events can bring big benefits to those who make an impression. “You get noticed by companies,” he says, which is in fact how he landed the position he now occupies.
The nervousness aside, competitors need to be well prepared and not overthink their creations.
“The biggest mistake I see bartenders making in competitions is that they over-complicate things,” says Simon. “They make fantastic drinks at their bar, but when they get in front of the judges they try to do too much and the result just doesn’t taste as good as it needs to.”
There is a fine line between taking things up a level and going too far, he explains, saying that trying too hard can be to competitors’ detriment.
“I also tell people to just be themselves,” he says. “Don’t imitate other bartenders’ styles or methods; be unique and original.”
Simon emphasizes the importance of the whole experience, rather than just the drink.
“I always put this scenario to people: If you go to a bar where the cocktail is amazing but the bartender is a snob and ignores you, or you go to a casual bar where you just have a beer and a shot but the bartender is lots of fun and entertaining, which bar will you return to?
“Interacting with your guests is crucial.”
Two of the main competitions each year are the World Class Bartending Competition and the Stoli Cocktail Masters Bartending Competition. If you are interested in learning more, talk to your friendly neighborhood mixologist.