Mark Tubridy, a bartender at New York’s 21 Club, opens an app on his phone and starts playing a drum loop. “The gin is the drums,” he says, grooving along. “The black pepper is the strings, and the Sumatran coffee is the melody.”
He’s presenting the drink that won him a place in this month’s grand final of Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender (MIB) competition in Chicago, comprising three rounds: a conceptual cocktail contest, a business pitch and an ingredient challenge, where each finalist will create a drink from a randomly assigned ingredient. The winner will receive US$35,000: a $10,000 individual prize and a $25,000 grant with which they will develop their business idea.
Seemingly every drinks company now has its own competition: industry authority Difford’s Guide lists 46 competitions on its website, sponsored by everyone from Pernot Ricard to Ting grapefruit juice. And it’s no longer enough for a cocktail to look pretty or taste good – it has to act as storyteller or social commentary. The buzzword for last year was sustainability: Chicago-based Carley Gaskin won MIB with a zero-waste cocktail, and tequila education project The Tahona Society launched The Collective Spirit, a competition in which contestants aim to secure a $50,000 grant by presenting a sustainable bartending concept.
Some contests have brought once-overlooked minorities into the spotlight. The women-only Speed Rack was founded in 2011 by Ivy Mix and Lynnette Marrero; it now runs in five regions and has raised over $1 million for breast cancer charities. “I started Speed Rack to make a platform for women in a male-dominated industry,” says Mix. “When we started, the profession was almost entirely composed of men; now, we see more and more women leading.”
Dubbed “the roller derby of bartending,” Speed Rack rounds see punky, black-clad contestants whipping up four craft cocktails in the fastest possible time. They incur penalties for errors, such as stray egg yolk in a whiskey sour or a leaf at the bottom of a mint julep. USA 2019 winner Kat Corbo’s final time was two minutes and four seconds.
To avoid a tiny error from derailing their game, competitive bartenders spend hundreds of hours preparing. For his literature-inspired drink, “Short Story,” MIB finalist David Yee tried endless permutations during his time off from working at Oddfellows Liquor Bar in Columbus. “After a while, your palate starts to go numb,” he says. “I was calling people over to sample three slightly different drinks, asking them which they prefer: A, B or C? It’s too easy to get comfortable, to do something that’s just a riff on a classic. You have to push yourself to do something different.”
Occasionally, the conceptualising goes too far. “At one point, people joked that it had turned into The Most Imaginative Terrarium Contest,” says Christian Suzuki, an MIB finalist who works at Wildhawk, San Francisco. “It’s calmed down a bit now, thankfully.” His own cocktail, the Japanese-influenced “Imaginary Folklore,” nearly suffered a similar fate. “It was turning into “17 Ways with Sesame Seeds,” but I pared it back,” he says.
When tasting a cocktail that’s the result of weeks of R&D, one should be sober enough to enjoy it. This may explain why the rise of conceptual bartending has coincided with another major drinks trend – low-alcohol cocktails and mocktails. Even some bartenders are cutting back. “I never drink at home,” says Suzuki. “The older I get, the more responsibilities I have – it just wouldn’t make sense.”
In acknowledging its historically high rates of alcoholism and growing calls for change, the drinks industry is slowly course-correcting. In 2018, the Tales of the Cocktail (TOTC) conference in New Orleans – one of the biggest events in the industry – held an alcohol-free opening party. The party also marked the official launch of the Pin Project – founded by San Francisco bartender Mark Goodwin and funded by a TOTC grant – in which workers abstaining from alcohol wear a pin to signal their intention to others.
As well as facilitating bartender abstinence, the industry is waking up to the many physical and mental health risks associated with bar work. “It’s disruptive to sleep; people are working against their circadian rhythm,” says Tim Etherington-Judge, founder of not-for-profit social enterprise Healthy Hospo. “Nutritionally, it’s also hard; when you finish work, you’re too tired to cook, and the only places that are open are fast food joints.”
Etherington-Judge, a former brand ambassador for Diageo, founded Healthy Hospo after suffering a breakdown in 2016. He now tours conferences and workplaces educating hospitality workers in nutrition, exercise, and mental health. “We show bars and restaurants the business impact of looking after their staff,” he says. “I met with a chef who said to me, ‘If my fridge breaks, I pay to have it fixed; yet if a member of staff breaks, I don’t do the same for them.’ A small investment in staff wellness pays dividends in increased productivity, reduced turnover and sick leave, and improved customer experience.”
All this suggests that the bartending industry is beginning to grow up. For many, it’s also transitioned from stopgap to life calling. MIB finalist Marta Ess, who works at Toronto’s Chantecler restaurant, took up bartending to fund her professional dance career but after retiring from dance at 29, realised that her true passion lay with her side-hustle. She insists it’s not so different. “Bartending and dance require a lot of the same skills,” she says. “They’re both physically demanding, you have to work erratic hours, and you have to have good spatial awareness. You’re also constantly performing – you’re not just providing a drink; you’re providing an experience.”
Transition from a previous career is a common theme among many of the MIB competitors. David Yee was a writer; now he tells stories through his cocktails. For some, the lines are more blurred. “I see acting in everything,” says finalist Nikolas Zoylinos, who turned down a place at London’s prestigious drama school, RADA, to become director of operations at Austin speakeasy Here Nor There. “When you do bartending competitions, you’re up there on that stage and anything can happen. I’ve seen people go to pieces up there, just like they would in an audition. But you just have to go with the flow, whatever happens. I once did a Bacardi competition where I forgot to add the rum, but I still styled it out.”
Ess says she’s noticed a perception change among those new to the industry. “Our generation all fell into it one way or another,” she says. “But with the younger generation, bartending is not a fallback – it’s the goal.”