With cocktail comps back in full swing, one of Australia's best shares his advice.
Bartenders tend to divide into two camps when it comes to cocktail competitions: there are those who avoid them, and those who enter them.
For those who don’t like the cocktail competition world, I get it: there can be something artificial to getting up on stage before a panel of judges and making a drink and telling us a story. Bartenders who can host a busy bar, three-deep, and keep the train on the tracks can get disoriented and not perform to their best when they’re up on stage at a cocktail competition. They feel like they’re performing.
But having judged a few cocktail competitions, the bartenders who do the best are often the ones who don’t see it so much as performing, but hosting - hosting the judges, hosting the audience if there is one, but also being a host to their fellow competitors. They’re often the ones who practise total hospitality.
Alex Boon is one of those people. He’s won a couple of big national cocktail competitions now, and won the 2022 Patrón Perfectionists cocktail competition earlier this month. So you could say he’s a formidable cocktail competition bartender — but I think that misses the point.
I was one of the judges for the national final of Patrón Perfectionists, and having also been into Alex’s bar a few times — the excellent Pearl Diver Cocktails & Oysters in Melbourne — I didn’t see much of a difference in the way Boonie made me feel in the cocktail competition setting to the way I did sitting at his bar. Alex Boon is just a great host.
Obviously he can make a great drink, too. But how does he approach cocktail comps in general? How did he approach things for Patrón Perfectionists? He’s got some winning experience and some great advice in the interview below.
Sam Bygrave: How does it feel to be the winner?
Alex Boon: It feels great. It felt really surreal.
Yeah, and you’ve done this before too.
100 percent, but every time you go and you compete, you’re competing against some really amazing bartenders. And to be picked as number one is really, really amazing because of that. You see so many people with really inspiring stories and great drinks, so it’s kind of this surreal moment when you get picked at the top of that list.
And how are you feeling about the trip to Mexico? Have you been there before?
I’ve been to Mexico once, but it’s just a dodgy border city. So I’m looking forward to going back and checking out Mexico properly.
So in terms of how you approached the comp and the preparation that you did, at the entry stage, what went through your mind? How did you approach entering the comp?
So the first round, obviously, it’s all about what’s on paper. So it’s really, really important when you’re coming up with that first drink that it sounds delicious to read. And that’s always the first thing for me — I want the judges to read my recipe and go, I really want to try that. So making a drink that sounds delicious on paper, but that is also delicious, is the first step. And then after I’ve come up with that formula with my drink I’ll then try and work my story into that. And I think with this one in particular, I’ve made the drink first and then approached the story, where a lot of the times, it’s the other way around — you have the inspiration, you have your story, and you’re making a drink around that. So doing it in the reverse was a little bit tricky, but it worked. It worked out quite well.
Yeah, it looks like you got the result required. For the second challenge, which required you to use an ingredient three ways and make the drink in front of the judges, how did you approach that? Because you mentioned during your chat on stage that you’re an old dog who doesn’t want to learn new things — but you you’ve got certain tools in your repertoire.
That’s it. I really enjoyed the second challenge because it was about compounding flavours, and it’s something I really like to do in my bar. Try and utilise an ingredient as many times as possible to get as many unique flavours out of it. But as I said on stage, you know, I’m an old dog. I refuse to learn new tricks now — I just kind of beat a dead horse. The way I approached the garnishes in particular, is how can I take what I already know and make it better? For me, that’s what perfectionism is, right? You’re never perfect, but it’s trying to be a little bit better every time. And that’s the quest to be perfect, right? So I just wanted to take a garnish that I already did, which is what we use with the Sea & Shell Martini, that spherified olive, but make it multi-textured, multi-layered. So when you had that, it really set you up for the drink to come. Which was really important.
Yeah, it was really cool. Sometimes with spherification, it can be a bit like gross — you know, there’s a skin around it when it’s not done well. Yours isn’t like that — is there a trick to them?
Trial and error. Practice, lots and lots of practice, I’ve made so many of them now. And I’m lucky, I’ve got a guy that makes them for me now, so I never have to do it again. Otherwise, I’d continually have nightmares about them.
The benefits of being a bar owner.
I’ve got a Head of Spherification now, which is cool [laughs]. But it’s all about, again, just practice and practice and practice. When when we first started that garnish, I was throwing out a bunch because I wasn’t happy with them, to get to a point where we were making them perfect every time. And you know, it’s just tweaking the little things and making sure that you’re happy with the end result.
What advice can you give to bartenders when it comes to presenting? You’re obviously an old hand at this now — how do you cope with nerves?
Well, this is an interesting one, because someone asked me that question. It’s like, you’ve done this a lot — do you still get nervous? And of course I do. Nerves, I don’t think you’ll you’ll ever be able to combat them. No matter how many times you present, or how many times you compete, right? It’s just a thing, you’ll always be nervous that something’s on the line. What I have become good at doing is hiding those nerves. You know, I can put a mask on. So beforehand, I might be shitting myself, but I can get up there and something will click as soon as I need to start presenting, and I put [those nerves] in the back of my head. That only comes with practice, putting yourself in a position where you might be afraid. I think that’s very important to do.
Yeah, it’s almost like getting used to feeling that feeling and being okay with it.
Exactly. Just being okay with the fact that you’re uncomfortable. And that uncomfortable feeling — if you didn’t have it, there would be a problem. If I wasn’t nervous up there, it means I didn’t have anything to lose. I think that would be an issue.
How important is story in these kinds of competitions?
It’s incredibly important, because obviously, the judges want to hear you talk about something, not just get up there and talk about the flavours of a drink. It’s really important, and I can’t stress this enough, to be genuine about what you talk about. I feel like a lot of people have radars for it. And if they see that you’re being disingenuous up there, you can really come across that way. So making sure you’re 100 percent stoked on what you’re talking about. Be stoked about what you’re talking about. And for you to believe it is really, really important.
How are you feeling about competing globally?
I can’t wait. I think I’m definitely going to be incredibly prepared for it. I’m gonna put myself out there with a really good mindset to take it home. But more than anything, I’m just gonna make sure I go over there and have a good time. You know, make sure I really enjoy the experience and meet some really cool people.
60 Hands Highball
- 45ml PATRÓN Silver
- 15ml mango liquor
- 15ml verjuice
- 20ml lacto-fermented mango syrup
- 60ml clarified mango juice
- Carbonated and served over ice in a highball.
- Garnished with mango three-ways sphere
Recipe by Alex Boon, Melbourne.