'We can spot insincerity a mile off,' says Evan Stroeve

The World Class winner on whether cocktail comps are necessary, bringing Rhubi Mistelle to life, and more.

'We can spot insincerity a mile off,' says Evan Stroeve

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Cocktail competitions play a big role in the bar trade. They often form a key pillar of liquor brands’ efforts to engage bartenders — but are they necessary for bartenders? Do you need to enter them to build your career and rep?

After disappearing thanks to the pandemic, cocktail competitions are back. For those younger bartenders who began in bars after 2020, it might be a novel thing: you come up with a drink, hero an ingredient, show it off to the world — and you might be well rewarded with a prize and a win at the end of the day. You may even learn a few things in the process. But for those of us who remember the Before Covid times, this news might be treated with a little trepidation.

You see, in the five years or so to 2020, it seemed like every brand had to have a cocktail competition. The idea is simple enough: engage bartenders by getting them to experiment and create new cocktails with your spirit, throw on a party, get some buzz on social media. But when everyone began doing it? There were more than we needed, and the results were often less than ideal.

I know this because I have been a judge at loads of them. I loved it — for the record, I’m more than happy to sit in front of however many bartenders you want to throw at me and taste their latest creations, both good and bad. It takes guts to get up there and talk about your drink in front of a rowdy, bartendery crowd, and I’ve tasted some truly memorable drinks. But the truth of these comps is that the bad drinks far outweigh the great ones — that’s the result of needing to swing for the fences. The comps don’t want a riff on a Daiquiri — to stand out, they want a showy, Instagramable drink, and the marking criteria generally reflects that.

All these comps also gave rise to comp bartenders: bartenders who were great at performing on stage, but less good when it comes to pumping out drinks and hosting people in their bars during service. Cocktail competition success does not a good bartender make.

But there are bartenders who excel at both disciplines, which is my roundabout way of getting to my interview with Evan Stroeve. He’s one of the good ones.

Evan Stroeve ripping it up on stage at the World Class Australian final in 2021. Photo: Supplied
Evan Stroeve ripping it up on stage at the World Class Australian final in 2021. Photo: Supplied

Evan can banter with you over the bar, he’s adept with a Daiquiri, and he’s got a creative instinct that pushes the boundaries not just in the kind of drink he can put out in a cocktail comp setting, but also in the everyday operation of the bars he works; his time at Shady Pines Saloon, The Baxter Inn, Bulletin Place, and now Re, are an indicator of just how good a bartender he is.

He also won the Australian final of Diageo’s World Class Cocktail Competition last year, one of the toughest and most competitive cocktail comps a bartender can enter — some people can walk and chew gum at the same time.

So in this week’s episode, he talks about whether or not he thinks entering cocktail comps is necessary to further a bartender’s career; he also shares some advice on how to prepare for them (and hopefully, win), then we get onto how he and Tim Philips-Johansson took an in-house ingredient at Bulletin Place and turned it into a commercial product, one that will be landing on the shelves at Australia’s largest liquor retailer in the next month.

He’s a smart and creative bartender, and someone who has a lot of ideas and loves to talk shop. I really like this talk with Evan, so this week there’s no takeaways from the interview below — I recommend hearing the advice from Evan himself.

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