Harrison Kenney shares his winning advice to Alex Boon (and you, too).
Bartenders tend to be in two minds when it comes to thinking about whether or not to get involved in a cocktail competition: they either like the process, find it creatively rewarding, and enjoy the challenge of presenting their drinks to the world; or they scoff and pass them off as unreal tests of a bartender’s ability.
I can see both sides of the argument here. But I’ve come to think of the cocktail comp as a rare place for bartenders to get innovative and creative. So much of a bartender’s job is about the constant recreation of a consistent beverage — drink menus change infrequently in most bars, so the time for creativity is limited; most of the job is repetition — consistency is the goal.
That’s as it should be. But in a cocktail competition, you get a brief, and you get to go run with it. It’s a break from routine. You can get a little crazy.
And they can lead to some incredible experiences — just ask Harrison Kenney.
Kenney has the results on the big global stage. He’s the 2022 Patrón Perfectionists global champ, thanks to his performances in Mexico and his drink, Teal (which also saw its way to number 10 on the Top 50 Boothby Drinks of the Year last year). His win at the Patrón Hacienda in Jalisco last year has led to some huge experiences: not only did he get the full treatment in Mexico, spending time in agave fields and experiencing tequila production firsthand, he has also been around the world as a judge for the next instalment of the competition. The Bar Planet general manager and former Cantina OK! creative lead visited places like Tel Aviv, Dubai, London, Madrid, Frankfurt and more to judge their national finals for this latest instalment of Patrón Perfectionists.
And he’ll be back in Mexico at the end of this month to judge this year’s global finals. With him will be Australia’s current Patrón Perfectionists champ, Alex Boon, who is both bartender and co-owner at Melbourne’s excellent Pearl Diver Cocktails & Oysters.
Ahead of their trip overseas I stole a few minutes with them and captured a bit of their conversation about what Boon can expect, Kenney’s advice for the competition, and more — you can catch that in the video here.
Below, are a six key (and lightly edited) takeaways from the conversation — advice that might help you in preparation for your next cocktail comp, or even to just get better speaking publicly.
Nerves are good
Boon has said before that when it comes to nerves, it’s all about being okay with being uncomfortable. He has competed in many comps before, so you might think he doesn’t get nervous any more. “Of course I do,” he says. “If I wasn’t nervous up there, it means I didn’t have anything to lose. I think that would be an issue.”
“Everyone’s nervous,” says Kenney. “You know, that’s the nature of it. You’re gonna be shaking a little bit. It’s the adrenaline, it’s not what you would normally do.You’re putting yourself out of your comfort zone.”
Just do your job: tend bar
“How did you combat your nerves when you’re up there, especially on a global scale?” asks Boon.
“I didn’t,” says Kenney. “I was nervous the first day, the second day. And then the day that we got there when I was going to perform it almost went away. I just has a transcendent moment as I got on stage, where I was like, looking at the judges in front of me. And I was like, Oh, I’m just making a drink for people. I’m just bartending.”
Adopt a team-centric approach
Yes, if you’re at the global final there’s a big prize on offer and you get to say you’re the best in the world. But, as Kenney points out, you don’t want to be the person there with the win at all costs mentality.
“It was crazy because you feel less like you’re competing against these people but more in a sense that you’ll be working together behind the bar,” he says. “It kind of feels as if you’re going into prep for a shift. You’ll be hanging out having drinks talking about the competition.”
“It was so good to see that people wanted you to succeed.”
And succeed, Kenney certainly did.
Make use of the resources and switch on
“There are so many resources there,” says Kenney. “The judges are with you the entire time, you’ve got Lauren Mote who is the head of Patrón Perfectionists [and the global director of on-trade excellence], you’ve got [ex-bartender and Australian Patrón execution manager] Joey Chisholm there, so you can ask questions along the way. You’re watching how tequila is made, they’re teaching you about Patrón, you’re going to the agave fields — the answers are all around you.”
Be in the moment
Boon is no stranger to cocktail competitions, and he’s competed in a global final before. Still he was keen to know what to expect.
“I think my biggest question for you is what to expect while I was over there in terms of Mexico, you know, how did you find your your experience as a whole?” Boon asks.
“It was insane,” says Kenney. “I’d wanted to go to Mexico for so, so long. Working at Cantina OK!, the guys are always going over and told me tales about it. And as soon as I got into Mexico City, it was just so rich, so diverse. As much as I was trying to get involved in the competition and practice what I was going to say, I was just trying to really immerse myself in Mexico as much as I possibly could.”
“And just be in the moment, and really enjoy your experience,” says Boon.
“Yeah, exactly. I think it’s one of the most important things to remember.”
Know and nail the criteria
This sounds redundant, but if you speak to people who compete and people who organise these competitions, apparently it still needs to be said. You want to read the criteria, and prepare accordingly.
“I guess the thing that I noticed — and you do this so well — is you have that scoring criteria,” says Kenney. “All the answers are kind of right there for you, it tells you how much everything weighs, the value of it all, the points that you can accumulate in each different area. So [you’re good] as long as you’re reading through that and just making sure that you’ve ticked all the boxes off.”
“That’s pretty much the way you do these competitions, right?” Boon says. "Like you’re given a criteria that literally says if you follow all these all these guidelines, marks or whatever format it is, and you make sure that you do everything 100%, there should be no reason why you don’t win those challenges.”
In other news
I probably don’t need to tell you, but it’s Friday, and it’s the 17th of March — that means it’s St Patrick’s Day. And that seems like as good a time as any to update our explainer on what makes Irish whiskey unique, its rules and reg, and a look at the spirit’s dramatic rise over the last 15 years.
Congratulations to Melbourne bar Caretaker’s Cottage, which celebrates a year of trade today — it’s no small feat in this unpredictable world. But Caretaker’s Cottage seems to me proof that if you put great people behind a bar serving quality drinks in a warm, welcoming and fun environment, you can make something pretty special. Best opening of 2022 if you ask me.