Shawn Soole
November 20, 2006

As a result of my experience facilitating competitions as I have, I have gained useful insight into the psyche of a bartender & now understand what makes them want to throw their hat in the ring. It is the ultimate presentation of egos and over confidence. The flair and mixology competition is where every bartender with even a hint of skill can come out and prance around like a peacock with their tail feathers out. Bartenders from every nook and cranny come out to offer their knowledge and inevitably, upstage anyone who is willing to compete with them on stage and off.

Competitions here in Canada and in the States are few and far between. In Oz, we have what we call the competition season; it’s about June to October. Each alcohol company holds at least a dozen competitions using everything from vodka to obscure liqueurs such as Cynar, Sake and Pernod. Each company has one goal in mind, the promotion of their products on centre stage utilising the best bartenders in Australia to showcase them.

These shows create a crowd, made up of fellow bartenders, co workers and the general public. The companies put on drink tabs, giveaways and incentives all in the vain attempt to sell more of their products. The crowd waits with bated breath for the competition to start all the while drinking free Midori or Coronas.

While the spectators are waiting for the gladiators to enter the arena, the competitors are milling around the bar. Networking, telling tall tales and for the first timers getting drunk to calm their nerves. I remember my first mixology competition, I was so nervous. I arrived with my box of tricks, walked into Hotel LA and was confronted with 200 people all clambering around the bar in an excited haze.

Being my first competition I kept to myself and just watched the others buy drinks for the judges, talk the talk and walk the walk. It reminded me of a scene out of a movie where everyone was trying to be someone they weren’t at a fancy Hollywood party. I stayed outside of that scene, the winner that night had put a $200 bar tab just for the judges. People said it was a coincidence but it didn’t feel that way to me.

The first competition when I actually knew enough people to be able to network really opened my eyes to how egotistical bartenders can be. I entered the arena, a few cocktail competitions under my belt, now known around town for some of my creations and the first person I talk to challenges me in front of everyone. He challenged my cocktail knowledge, my skills and the reason why I had even made it to the competition. I was flabbergasted, the balls this guy had to do this in front of the major players in the industry. Well I quickly shut him up by regaling the history of every classic cocktail he hit me with. This was my first of many “penis measuring” contests I have had in my career. I find them profoundly stupid and unnecessary when you’re all there to compete on a level playing field. I decided long ago to stay out of these “cock fights”, and because I did I ended up with a tag of being too arrogant to talk to people. Classic situation of “damn’d if you do, damn’d if you don’t”.

The competition starts as soon as you walk into the stadium but really heats up when you get up on stage. Every bartender can talk it up around the bar surrounded by his mates but what happens when he gets up on the stage, underneath bright lights and two hundred odd onlookers watching every move pour and cut. You soon realise that bartender that tried to question your ability is lying on the floor in the foetal position sucking his thumb. Nothing can prepare you for that solitary moment on stage with 4 minutes to make five drinks but your skills, your knowledge and a healthy set of “nads”. But you know the best thing about the experience; it either makes you or breaks you.

The challengers walk into the arena, wearing their coat of arms, talking themselves up, sometimes followed by their wenches. We are there to see who falls and who is triumphant. Mixology and flair competitions are the modern day medieval duels where each ego’s will be tested and often self confidence is crushed.