Mixopedia: Why Cocktail Competition Winners Seldom Become Classics - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Mixopedia: Why Cocktail Competition Winners Seldom Become Classics

I take it you’re familiar with the Golden Dawn cocktail. As you’re no doubt aware, this concoction of gin, apricot brandy, Calvados, and orange juice took top honors at the first international cocktail competition in London in 1930. The Golden Dawn was the invention of the head barkeep at London’s swank Berkeley Hotel, someone named T. Buttery. It bested all the other drinks in contention that year, including one called the “Don Bradman,” which was “named for the famous young Australian cricketer who is a strict teetotaller [sic].”

The process by which a drink survives and thrives in the complex cocktail ecosystem is mysterious and murky. Some drinks are invented, swiftly embraced, and go on to become classics that will be enjoyed by one’s children and grandchildren. Others—the vast majority, actually—are ignored, fall behind, and are eaten by hyenas. It’s all part of the process of natural selection.

Within this system, one might think that scaling the daunting, blustery peaks of competition would offer a secure route to enduring fame. This is a form of natural selection, after all, just compressed. Yet a review of past champions suggests that victorious drinks aren’t often enshrined as classics. In fact, evidence suggests that winning a competition may be the surest way to consign a drink to oblivion. Consider the Lillian For Ever (which won a competition in 1930), Madison Avenue Cocktail (1936), Riviera (1951), and the Tuacian (1964).

Cocktail competitions have been part of the bar world since the 19th century. The first formal competition of which there is mention reportedly took place in New Orleans in 1869. Noted bartender Harry Johnson claimed in his Bartender’s Manual that he bested five “of the most popular and scientific bartenders of the day … in a tourney of skill.” No other known source corroborates his win or even the contest.

Scattered cocktail competitions were reported in tandem with the rise of fancy drinks and elaborate saloons and bars in the late 19th century. This includes one staged in 1891 by a group of liquor dealers in St. Louis; the winner was awarded a trip to Europe and the Holy Land.

Competitions migrated overseas to Great Britain and Europe during the long drought of U.S. Prohibition, and cocktail contests were staged in Paris in 1928 and 1929 and London in 1930. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, U.S. competitions returned as liquor brands scrambled to rekindle America’s love affair with mixed drinks. The Golden Dawn’s fate suggests how unpredictable a cocktail’s progress may be. I could find little evidence that the Golden Dawn became a fashionable tipple after it gained its laurels in 1930. Yet—hello!—it re-emerged in the 1974 edition of Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide, and in roughly the same form as the winning cocktail. It then survived through six editions of the guide before being put to pasture in 2012.

Competition cocktails are the show dogs of the cocktail world, adorned with pom-pom haircuts and lollipop-colored ribbons.

In part, the lack of staying power among champions may be due to the fact that many competitions didn’t so much recognize the quality of the drink as the charm of the bartender. A cocktail com- petition held in London in 1870, for instance, pit barmaids against one another in a battle of “good character, obliging manners, business habits, neatness of costume, and respectability.”

But perhaps more so, the drinks entered at competitions are not meant to be the drinks that survive in the wild. They often preen and pirouette, and feature ingredients that are too exotic, too expensive, too sponsor-oriented, or just too, too many. Competition cocktails are the show dogs of the cocktail world, adorned with pom-pom haircuts and lollipop-colored ribbons. In the competition for real-world survival, they’re no match for the surly mutts just outside the door.

Of course, there’s always the exception that proves the rule. Let us turn to the Chartreuse Swizzle. In 2003, San Francisco bartender Marcovaldo Dionysos entered this into a competition sponsored by Chartreuse. He wanted a tropical-style drink, so he mixed the Chartreuse with lime, pineapple, and Velvet Falernum, then fairly new to the local market. The drink won, and afterwards it migrated to Harry Denton’s Starlight Room, where Dionysos was “beverage specialist.” Even still, he says, “The drink sold okay but never took off.”

Some years later, Dionysos was hired to help develop the drinks menu at Clock Bar in San Francisco’s Westin St. Francis Hotel, across the lobby from the restaurant named after chef Michael Mina. Chef Mina stopped by one evening and asked for a Grey Goose on the rocks. The bar didn’t stock the vodka, so Dionysos punted, offering to make him a cocktail. He served up a Chartreuse Swizzle, and Mina was impressed. It ended up on the list at several of his other restaurants, and then made the leap to a slushy machine in Los Angeles, carried south by a former Mina employee. “The rest is history,” Dionysos says. “It started to show up on menus around the country, and then around the world.” Today it’s frequently cited as a modern classic.

The lesson? The true natural selection of the cocktail takes place not in gilded ballrooms and on brightly lit stages. Enduring cocktails are forged in the smithy of the dim bar, one drink after another. It is from such unheralded workshops that modern classics such as the Oaxaca Old Fashioned, Cosmopolitan, and Bramble have emerged.

One thing these all have in common? There’s not a single medal among them.

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