Emma Sleight on how the World’s 50 Best Bars works

“That’s why the list is so dynamic and by its nature controversial.”

Emma Sleight on how the World’s 50 Best Bars works
Emma Sleight is head of content for World's 50 Best Bars & Hotels. Photo: Supplied

What makes a great bar? It’s a question I ask a lot — I’ve asked just about every guest I’ve had on the podcast over the last two years, and every answer is different; if there is one common theme or answer, it would likely be that it is the hospitality that makes bars great. But that’s a big, hard-to-define term, and there are many other aspects that make a great bar. And what you think makes a great bar will depend on your experience and your preferences.

Which makes sense, right? Once you’ve got the basics down — lighting, atmosphere, sound, service and drinks — the very best bars layer in something else that makes it stand out, but that can be hard to quantify, because we all experience the world of bars differently. That’s a good thing — there is no science to hospitality.

And it’s something my guest on today’s episode of Drinks At Work knows thanks to her work for The World’s 50 Best Bars and The World’s 50 Best Hotels. Emma Sleight is the head of content for 50 Best, and in this episode she talks about the experience that led her to the role (she has been, among other things, written about opera and a recipe developer — I think that’s a fairly uncommon combination), and she also talks about the voting process for 50 Best.

That’s because 50 Best is something of a lightning rod for praise and criticism every year when the list gets released. And as Emma says in this chat, that’s unavoidable — it’s a ranking of the preferences of 700 voters from around the world, so you can be sure there’ll be some results that you may not agree with.

(Full disclosure, too: I’m one of 28 academy chairs for 50 Best’s and whilst I don’t work for the organisation — it’s an unpaid role — I do help them collate voters from the Oceania region and they do fly me to the event each year.)

Emma talks about the processes they put in place to ensure the integrity of the voting process, and dispels some common myths about the process, but also gives a great insight into what it’s like working in one of the drink world’s truly unique roles — I really enjoyed this chat.

I’ve got some good news: we’ve published a print magazine! It’s called Bottled and we launched it up at the Bartenders’ Weekender in Brisbane last month — and it’s now available to buy. There are over 100 pages of stories about drinks and the people who make them from around the globe — stories which you’ll only find in print. You can read more about what’s in the magazine and get your own copy at bottledmag.com. We’re shipping around Australia, New Zealand, the whole world really. I can’t wait for you to read it.

The Quotable Emma Sleight

What is 50 Best?
“Fundamentally, World’s 50 Best Bars is an annual list that celebrates the very best of the international drinks industry,” she says. “So it’s been around for quite a while. First published in 2009, and it is obviously very well known as the annual ranking of bars as voted for by more than 700 drinks experts around the world. So the list represents the ultimate international guide to the world’s top bars and drinking destinations.”

On why there is no set criteria for deciding what is ‘best’:
“That’s why the list is so dynamic and by its nature controversial,” Emma says, “because you’re always going to get people who have different personal interests in what they consider to be best. But that is why we take that democratic view of a snapshot of 700 industry-leading people’s opinion at that particular time. All we do is collect the votes. So, you know, you’ve got someone over here voting for a cocktail menu or where the ingredients are from. But then you’ll have other people who are focusing on the ambience, the style of service or just the cool drinks list. So that’s why it’s important to have that diversity in that egalitarian approach to the vote.”

You can listen to Drinks At Work on Apple PodcastsSpotifyAmazon Music and on Android.