Once you have won a few comps, or started working with a brand, the chances are someone will ask you to judge a cocktail competition.
This is one of those occasions in life where people assume you know what is required of you, without actually telling you how to comport yourself.
The truth is, to be a good judge there are a number of things you need to do that might not immediately come to mind, and as far as I know, very little training or instruction is given on the subject.
So, having judged a great many competitions over the years, and having committed every faux pas in the book at one time or another, here is my guide to judging cocktail competitions in a way that will ensure both the competitors and sponsor are happy.
Don’t arrive with a hangover – You’ve booked tomorrow off because you have a comp to judge. It doesn’t start until 12, so, you know, you could have a couple of drinks tonight, right?
This is all well and good as long as it is just a couple of drinks. The competitors have put hours of preparation into their drinks and performance, and they deserve to be judged by someone who is not half asleep or likely to vomit at the first whiff of Tequila. There are some big prizes at stake these days, so treat your duties with the respect they deserve.
Don’t discuss a performance while the bartender is cleaning the bar – It is imperative you resist the urge to critique a competitor while they are still in earshot. Should they hear your whispered ‘well, that was crap’ comment, it will be both embarrassing and confidence-sapping for them.
This is doubly important in multi-round competitions. While they may have cocked up their first drink, there’s nothing to say they wont smash their second and they deserve the chance to do so without having their confidence dented. If the other judges do this, tell them to stop.
Don’t taste palate killers – Home made ingredients are de rigueur in competitions these days, and bartenders will often want you to taste theirs in isolation to their drink. Judging-wise, this is normally of little use, and tasting Dorset Naga and Asphalt bitters will ruin your tongue for the rest of the session.
Don’t be a dick – You aren’t Simon Cowell, and the competitors aren’t dead-eyed reality TV contestants. While it is perfectly acceptable to ask questions, be careful not to put the competitor off their stride, and don’t heckle.
Understand the rules – Are marks for ‘presentation’ awarded for how the drink looks, or good chat? Is there a maximum number of ingredients? Is there a penalty for going over time? You should know the rules well enough to spot infractions or advise competitors if asked.
Be flexible – The first couple of competitors in each competition are quite hard to judge, because it takes a little while to get a feel for what is a good score.
Half way through, look back at your early scores and make sure you are still happy with them. As a rule of thumb, I revise the marks awarded (normally upwards) to the first two competitors in 90% of competitions, to ensure I am applying the same standards to everyone
Take notes and be prepared to give feedback – You will have a judging sheet for each competitor, with boxes for marks awarded in each category. If you give a particularly high or low score, write down why.
At the end of the competition you will likely be asked for feedback, and there’s nothing worse than forgetting why you handed out a stinky score. Also, being able to show the competitor your notations and marks promotes transparency and confidence in the judging process.
Stick to your guns – There will inevitably be some discussion between judges once the maths has been done. If you have a clear winner, don’t be coerced into changing your score for political reasons. This happens very rarely, but if you are pressured, stick to your guns and refuse to change your marks.
Be aware of your experience – You will sometimes be asked to give remarks at the end of a competition. If you are relatively new to judging, keep your remarks short and positive. Unless you have lots of experience, or know the competitors well, turning up in a strange city and dwelling on the bartenders’ deficiencies is pointless and will win you few friends.
Cocktail competitions, above all else, should be an enjoyable learning experienced for everyone involved. As judge, your job is to use your knowledge and experience to make sure the right person wins, and the people who don’t win at least feel they were given a fair chance to succeed.
View every competition you judge as a learning experience, much as you would when competing, and above all, actively pass on as much knowledge as you can to your fellow bartenders, while learning from them and the drinks they create.