Get Dale DeGroff’s tips for competing in cocktail competitions here

Dale DeGroff.
With Dale DeGroff in town last month for the De Kuyper Works, we’ve picked up some advice from the master you might want to revise before this month’s Bartender of the Year sponsored by BACARDÍ & De Kuyper.

By Dale DeGroff

Competitions cannot be won without a brilliant drink, but they can be lost if that is all you have.

“Just be yourself.” We are your customers and it is just another day at your bar. That sounds like a good tip. It is not. Competitions are heightened reality and even though judges want that feeling of hospitality, that feeling they are your regulars, they want more and “more” is where competitions are won. First and foremost, some things need to be in place. 

Ingredients and techniques: Choose ones that make sense in the context of the competition. Success or failure can hinge on a single well or poorly chosen ingredient or technique.

Practice: Work the presentation until you can do it with your eyes closed or in a dark room. Fred Astaire worked on a single movie dance routine for eight hours a day for several days. That’s why he looked like he was pulling it off for the first time flawlessly.

Confidence: Judges want to feel that you are absolutely in control; see you exhibit skill and grace handling your tools; watch your steps of service seem to unfold naturally. But they also want to see the experience that helps you react and deal when things go south and you have to MacGyver your way through to success with a sense of humour and a bit of self-deprecation.   

Deliciousness: There is no chance of winning unless you have crafted a cocktail that has a ridiculously high level of deliciousness. Don’t settle — try your drink out on every friend, especially the most critical, they all need to love it. And quiz the ones who don’t to figure out why.

Surprise: Take chances and bring some theatricality to your presentation, judges will go wherever you want to take them if it is genuine, from the heart and fun.

The Uniform: The T-shirt you call a uniform is what your bar is all about and at your bar it is perfect. But in competition it has no place. Judges want to see polish and they will from your opponents. Crisp cufflinked and jacketed can make a huge impression, unless it is the first time you’ve outfitted yourself like that and it makes you feel ridiculous. There are exceptions to every rule so make your statement with a uniform that is you — but not that t-shirt — unless it is your “dress” t-shirt and it is part of an ensemble that makes a unique statement.

The set: Use props and put us in a place — somewhere we want to be when we drink your libation.

Music or sound: The sound track of your presentation can carry us away if well-chosen and it doesn’t have to be music.

Aroma: Aromas can stir strong emotions — the part of the brain that controls memory and emotion is just above the nasal cavities where thousands olfactory receptors collect aromas.