After his World Class GB win and narrowly missing out on the global crown in São Paulo, Passing Fancies’ Matt Arnold explains why comps are about more than glory.
Let’s be honest, cocktail competitions are a bit mental. My first was William Chase in 2018. I presented a Bramley Apple White Lady, atop some faux chopped logs. I remember preparing for the comp – I was living with my nan at the time. It’s rather hard to explain to a lady born in 1948 why the pears you’re cooking in her kitchen at 11pm will tomorrow be mixed into a drink which will be presented in the manner of a TED Talk. She was always the most supportive of what I was doing, even if she was unsure of the objective.
That was the start of my cocktail comp journey and there have been plenty along the way. Some I’ve won, some I’ve lost, but they’ve all been great for my development. Yes, the chance at glory, the oversized cheque and the free trips are part of why we do them, but there’s much more to it. Let me explain why.
Networking and community
For an invested bartender, competitions are the easiest places to meet like-minded people. Being in a room filled with talented and forward-thinking drink slingers is a great networking opportunity. And due to the pressure, there’s a greater likelihood you’ll forge meaningful connections. Many of your fellow competitors will be the bar owners of the future – who knows, they could be your potential employer or even a business partner. You also get the opportunity to present yourself, as well as your drink, to people with great influence in our industry – the judges. It’s not uncommon for these relationships to also produce opportunities – I have very close friends who have been able to bag jobs at some of the world’s best bars based on the relationships they have made at competitions.
There’s also – should it float your boat – the prospect of brand work. Perhaps you see yourself as a brand ambassador one day, or if like me, you’re committed to service but like to work for brands on occasion, cocktail competitions can often open doors. If you perform well in a comp, are likeable and confident, there’s a chance you’ll put yourself first in line when brands need champions. This happy medium allows you to represent brands you believe in while still keeping your mixing tins well-lubricated.
And let’s not forget that wins in competitions are a great conversation starter for getting a job at your dream bar. At our place, Passing Fancies, we always want to surround ourselves with passionate, invested people.
Creativity isn’t just something you’re born with – with practice you can get better at it, and it’s instrumental to our profession. There are numerous instances when the creative process is tested; when suddenly a key ingredient for your bestselling drink is unavailable, it’s time to get creative. When a guest requests an impromptu concoction using an assortment of unrelated ingredients – once again, it’s time to get creative. By creating limitations around ingredients and time, competitions hone your creativity.
You’ll also learn from others; the way other bartenders make cocktails, their techniques and their style of presentation. At the World Class global finals, I encountered some remarkable processes and ideas that I’ll now explore. For example, the relationship between carbonation and emulsification. If you aspire to work at the most creative end of drinks, competitions put you at the forefront of new ideas, and new ways of working.
Your bar, your city
Competing in comps means you’re representing your bar, your city, and at global finals, your country. That’s no small thing. Over the past year or so, bartenders from Birmingham have achieved significant victories in contests such as Dojo, Diplomatico and my own at World Class GB, to name just a few. This has had a remarkable impact on our city, sparking conversations and placing our bar scene in discussions where it historically hasn’t been. Through these competitions, we’ve been granted a platform to showcase that the drinking culture in the Midlands is thriving.
Alright, it’s nice to have something shiny on the shelf to ward off the imposter syndrome, or at the very least show to your nan. And while comps are always worthwhile whether you fi nish last or fi rst, there are a few things you can do to give you a better chance of winning. The fi rst thing is: only enter the competitions that excite you, from brands you care about. Entering one competition you are passionate about will serve you better than entering 10 you’re half-arsing to win a trip to BCB. Also, don’t see them as competitions, but platforms for you to express yourself. Take risks and be bold. Push yourself and your team members to take part. Support others in your bar community. It’ll be stronger for it and so will you.