There’s a lot more to cocktail competitions than developing a winning recipe.
These events can provide numerous opportunities for bartenders to advance their careers and make important connections in the industry outside of their immediate circles. We connected with two successful competitive bartenders, Natasha Mesa from Deadshot in Portland, Oregon and Ran Duan from The Baldwin Bar and Blossom Bar in Boston, Massachusetts, to share their expertise and insight on the world of cocktail competitions and how to maximize the experience.
What are a few of the cocktail competitions that you have entered?
Natasha Mesa: Speed Rack, Espolon Cocktail Fights and the Nearly Neat competition are the top three that have impacted my career the most. I’d also like to add the Cocktail Apprentice Program at Tales of the Cocktail. While not a competition, you still compete against so many other people to get in, and it had a huge impact on my career and life.
Ran Duan: Winning Bombay Sapphire Most Imaginative Bartender and Bacardi Legacy definitely changed my life and career. Not only did they happen within 12 months of each other, but they also helped make my bars relevant.
How have cocktail competitions shaped or enhanced your career?
NM: The Espolon cocktail fights in Seattle (the first competition I entered) gave me the opportunity to create an original cocktail, show off a little of my bartending style, and have a great time while working fast and efficiently. I ended up winning, and although the win didn’t give me my dream job, it did give me a number of industry friends and connections outside of my bubble. Bartending competitions have really helped me build my personal brand. These competitions put me in front of some of the greatest influencers and creators in our industry. Their knowledge and advice, in addition to the industry family gained from these competitions, is priceless.
Do you think competing in competitions is something every career-focused bartender should pursue?
RD: Competitions aren’t for everyone. Some bartenders excel during service but are horrible at competitions. At the end of the day, you need to ask yourself why do you want to compete? For example, I was driven to compete because it elevated the status and image of my family’s business. It brought more business, which in return meant more profit. That motivation for me was raw, to better not only my life but my family’s. If your only motivation is to become a celebrity bartender, chances are that’s not enough to win.
How do you balance traveling for competitions with your regular work schedule?
NM: I am lucky enough to work with an amazing bar team. Without their support, the balance would be impossible. The owner, Adam, has seen his fair share of cocktail competitions, and his support throughout this journey has been unparalleled.
RD: Having a strong team and family behind you is key. My wife is my savior—she holds our family down, while my management continues the day-to-day operations. I’ve been blessed to have a team that cares about our program as if it was their own, so having the right systems in place is key.
What tips or advice would you offer to fellow bartenders who want to grow their careers through competitions?
RD: Keep in mind that a cocktail competition is not just a cocktail competition—it’s a brand marketing event. Research the brand and understand how you can align yourself with it. Either write a personal thank you to the competition hosts, or make sure you interact on a personal level with the judges. Try to stand out from the rest of the group. The judges are looking for someone who can represent the brand and carry that image for the next year.
There are plenty of benefits to competing (win or lose), but the most valuable prize is networking and using those new connections to grow your personal brand. These events give you access to new industry leads, PR and other special events. So keep in contact with competitors and ambassadors after the competition because you never know when or how these connections will benefit you later.
NM: Make sure you plan ahead and are prepared—know your routine inside and out, educate yourself about the brand and practice, practice, practice. Tell a story, a story that means something to YOU. Leave the judges with something to think about, preferably something that gets them excited or makes them happy. Remember, you’re there representing not only yourself, but your bar, your community and the brand, so always be a professional. Finally, have fun! After all, it is just a competition, and you learn just as much when you lose. It’s what you do next that is the most important.