Case Study: How To Win A Cocktail Competition

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Cocktail Competitions can catapult your development as a bartender, but they can be tricky to prepare for. Nimble Bar Co alumni Brian Chapman breaks down his process for winning the Made With Love Cocktail Competition. And shares the resources that helped him the most.

As a relative newcomer to the cocktail scene, I didn’t think I’d stand a chance in a cocktail competition amongst some of the finest bartenders in Western Canada but I figured it would be a great experience. 

Having two Caesar competitions under my belt gave me a bit of a foundation on how bartending competitions worked, what to do, and lots of what not to do!  

I Created My Own ‘Immersion’

During quarantine, I created my own ‘Cocktail Competition Immersion’ to soak up ideas, knowledge, and techniques that could contribute to my overall performance:

  • I read every book I could get my hands on (resources down below 👇)
  • Watched dozens of cocktail videos that focused on technique
  • Asked anyone I could for advice on the many questions / ideas I had

Once we were allowed to expand our bubbles a bit, I got together with some friends and practiced on them (which they didn’t seem to mind!).

Then finally, I was able to attend Nimble Bar School to further my knowledge and skills while having my current techniques checked out by the experts.  It seemed as though my hard work was paying off in the program.

When I was invited to compete, I accepted the challenge. 

Find ‘Themes’ In Everyday Life

I put hours of thought and practice every day into every detail of my cocktail.  With a fairytale theme, I got to spend time with my daughter watching kids movies while familiarizing myself with my theme! 

The cocktail thesis, presentation, garnishes and execution were up to me. I leaned on my network of friends to help me along the way. I’d get feedback on equipment, ideas, costume pieces, and of course taste testing! 

Repetition Is The Mother Of Skill (+ Key To My Success)

Once the recipe and plan was ready I practiced making the drink with water bottles over and over and over — timing myself each time. 

Five minutes isn’t a lot of time so everything needed to be muscle memory because once you get on stage your nerves can get the best of you. 

Avoid Stressors 👉 Arrive Early

 I arrived early at the venue, scoped out where I’d be setting up and began to mentally prepare myself envisioning how things would go.  We didn’t have much time to set up so I had to be fast and efficient in my setup (which felt like a competition on its own). 

Don’t Expect Anything To Be Provided

No equipment was provided so I needed to bring all of my own tools (right down to ice scoop and garnish tongs).  Some of the items you’ll want to be sure to bring yourself include:

  • Glassware
  • All ingredients, including spirits. Flagship products are usually provided, but make sure you’re totally clear on what you’ll have access to.
  • Any props
  • Garnishes
  • Your favourite tools
  • Ice 👉 Many venues don’t have world-class ice machines (like Hoshizaki or Kold Draft), so the ice can be wet and not suitable for serving

I shared the stage with a wonderful gent whom I had just met minutes before the show.  With the level of comradery amongst the competitors, it felt as though I was amongst old friends. 

Related:  The Ultimate Guide to Bar Jiggers

When the timer started my muscle memory took over and everything was smooth sailing.  I had a minor technical difficulty at the end with part of my presentation but chose not to fight it as I felt it wouldn’t affect my score and didn’t want to lose points on a time penalty. 

It’s Not Over ‘Til You’re Back In The Crowd

The drinks are made but it’s not over yet! They must be presented to the judges with an explanation. Be sure to explain your thesis, recipe, and how you want them to enjoy your cocktail. 

I had also prepared for this so I wasn’t just winging it.  

All that was left to do was watch the rest of the competition, and enjoy a drink with my fellow competitors. 

I had no idea that while we were enjoying some post-competition beers, the three judges selected me as the overall winner of the event! 

I watched the competition streamed on Facebook the following day from the comfort of my couch with my family and learned that I had won! 

OH NO!!! I have to do this again for the next round and start all over again!!!  Ha!

The Final Product I Presented: The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party

  • Woodford Reserve Bourbon
  • Mint & Honey Syrup
  • Cucumber & Mushroom Acid
  • Brûléed Wormwood & Anise Foam
  • Cucumber + Cream Cheese ‘Top Hat’ Garnish

Recommended Cocktail Competition Books / Resources

In addition to picking the brains of every bartender I know, my main resources for the comp were the following books.

(I’m a bit of a book junkie. I go back to all of these books at least a couple times a week).

Related:  A Beginner's Guide To Martinis (and Their Variations)

📚 The Bar Book by Jeffrey Morgenthaler

This book helped me understand processes, not just what to do but why to do them.  It got sciency without getting boring, (but then I love science).

 📚 Death & Co: Modern Classic Cocktails by Kaplan, Fauchald & Day

This book reads like a full day at a bar from open to close.  It starts off with the opening checklist and prep to get you ready for the middle of the book which sets you up for the end.  It is an excellent guide through every physical thing behind the bar from your ingredients, your tools, your setup, your ice to your garnish and so on.

📚 Meehan’s Bartender Manual by Jim Meehan

This book is a romance novel with cocktails playing the role of the damsel and bartenders playing the hero/heroin.  It gave me ideas about how to create custom drinks, how to make an existing cocktail your own and how and why to create meaningful garnishes.  Cocktails aren’t just drinks, they are an experience.

📚 Liquid Intelligence by Dave Arnold

This book spiralled me into advanced techniques and still has me spellbound constantly doing new experiments in my kitchen, buying new tools and equipment and running out of mason jars.  

📚 Cocktails, The Bartender’s Bible by Simon Difford

This book really just serves as the most expansive collection of cocktail recipes I’ve ever found in print form.  I like using this recipe for recipe inspiration, as a reference tool for remembering classic recipes and to see if my ideas are original!  

Plus Some Bonus Recommended Books

Other good reads include:

Brian Chapman

Brian Chapman

Brian Chapman is a retired veteran of the Royal Canadian Navy who has spent over twenty-seven years in and out of the Food and Beverage Industry. He has worked in nightclubs, pubs, fine dining, beer bars, cocktail bars, breweries, distilleries and liquor retail. While his main focus has been in the craft beer industry as a Certified Cicerone®, he has spent the past three years dedicating his focus on spirits and cocktails. As a recent graduate of Nimble Bar School, Brian plans to further his studies with more wine education, obtaining a Certified Specialist of Spirits title and becoming a fixture in the cocktail competition circuit.

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