There are several ideas of what the purest form of bartending may be and how to measure that. Long may that conversation continue.
For many behind the sticks, point on a Saturday night gives the mixologist an opportunity to flex intellectual muscles in conversation and knowledge, as well as testing the physical demands and stresses exacted over the body when delivering premium service at a relentless pace. Could that ever be measured in competition?
For others, a potent format of the game is dispense. The removal of the guest from the equation allows for concentration on the drink production alone. Man or woman is pitted against machine as tickets are churned out and mathematics, logistics, memory and technique become the bartenders best friends.
Remove the guest from the bartending game however and you have an incomplete picture. Any bartender when judged in terms of proficiency must have their knowledge, their service standards and their ability to look after customers examined, and as yet, as far as I am aware only the first two of those elements are inspected in any formal competitions worldwide.
The ‘best bartender’ competition we have nearly all witnessed at some point, consisting of somewhat hokey chit chat, a joke and a magic trick, along with the required brands name drop, reduces even the best and most socially adept of our species to a talking billboard.
Below is the highlight reel from the 2015 World Class Bartender of the Year Competition. It’s somewhat ‘Apprenticed’, and I don’t get to see anyone working at their capacity. There isn’t really any traditional bartending, there isn’t any solid analysis. The decisions seem to be subjective. Without wanting to belittle the talent of all of these finalists, I can’t help but think that their skill has been obfuscated by a smear of glamour and the attempt to create a life changing tv experience.
Mixology competitions are, whilst incredible for inspiring new recipes and distributing brand media, for the most part, somewhat dislocated from the warm hubbub of a real bar environment.
Flair competitions, while opening up bartending as a spectator sport to the public, still adhere to the format of the bartender at distance. Pedastalled on stage, interaction reduced to cheering. Where is the bartending competition we all dream of? What format could possibly allow bartenders to examine, analyze and enjoy the production of tasty beverages under pressure, as the sport we all witness it to be on a saturday night?
What the true connoisseur of bartending enjoys is the conversation that flies back and forwards over the last cigarette of the evening, the ‘in depth’ analysis of the shift. The examination of service style, of product usage, of historical reference, of customer management. The ability of the bartender to roll with the punches, to handle tricky situations and to use those situations to create a great atmosphere.
We have all been battered over the bar by a relentless swathe of punters. And for me, how one deals with such constant pressure, whilst maintaining the standards I mentioned earlier, whilst keeping great conversation going is the measure we all love to discuss but could never witness in competition form. Until now.
Over the weekend I worked in a bar without a license, without a menu, and without a break. On Friday I served 50 covers in an 18 seater basement between 6pm and 1am, on Saturday 44 covers. I was accompanied by a bar back. Her responsibilities were to keep me stocked up and to sit my tables, and also to ensure guests adhere to the 2 hour time allocation they are given.
Many in London will already be familiar with BYOC. Guests book a table and bring their own booze along. Bottles varied from a single 50cl helping of blueberry liquor on one table, to an array of vintage miniatures on another, to a litre of Smirnoff Red on another. It’s like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are gonna get.
The object is simple, give the guests the best drinks and service possible by combining the spirits and liqueurs they bring with the products on a provided cocktail trolley. A sort of boozey Ready Steady Cook. On the trolley there are the usual plethora of juices, a selection of homemade bitters, freshly made syrups, fresh fruit, herbs and spices and smattering of appropriate bar equipment.
Two GoPro’s and some microphones later, we could have our first interactive and live sporting bartender event. I served 44 people in six hours but 25 in three may be more appropriate to the sporting calendar. You could have two commentators watching the bartenders moves over the service period. Marks could be given for the calibre of the drinks but also, service performance and interaction. If you can do it with poker then surely…
Live streaming the competition on Youtube would be simple. I think it would be the first time full bartending was made truly competitive. I have a venue for the competition to take place, I have commentators and equipment ready for online broadcast. I even have a couple of competitors. Do I have a sponsor? Please email me at Thesecretbartender1@gmail.com
I’ve done work on and off for this bar over the years as well as working in some other seriously busy environments and can safely say that this format is rewarding, intense, knackering and a serious test of ones own abilities.
The standard of service required to keep the room going for a full shift is such that the venue are struggling to find bartenders strong enough to carry their weekend shifts. If you think a shift is something you could handle or would be interested in, I recommend getting in touch with Jeremy at The London Bartenders Collective for more details.
Her is a speculative competition format:
Table layout is 2 x 5 seater tables and 4 x 2 seater. 25 guests are seated over a 2 hour period and sit for 120 minutes. There is a 10 minute interval between sittings. Each guest must be delivered a minimum of 5 drinks. Guests provide alcoholic spirits and liqueurs of their choice. Guests drink quickly and always want more, how this is managed is crucial.
Provided by the bar: range of syrups (eg raspberry, chocolate, triple sec) , bitters (angostura, whiskey, pineapple and cardomom), juices (fresh citrus, pineapple, cucumber) and a limited range of vermouth, other bits and pieces like eggs etc.
Entrants judged on: Originality of recipe, conversational flair, service etiquette, logistical delivery, guest management, drink detail, room atmosphere, guest cross chatter.
Again, sponsors and anyone with ideas or a will to make this happen please get in touch at Thesecretbartender1@gmail.com.
It could be a lot of fun.