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2019 Holiday Cocktail Competition judges talk competition, best cocktails and holiday drinks

As the 2019 Holiday Cocktail Competition quickly approaches, the holidays follow shortly behind it. This year’s HCC judges panel is comprised of highly skilled U.S. Bartenders Guild members from across the nation, and they’ve answered questions ranging from competition expectations to serving the perfect holiday cocktail.

The 2019 Holiday Cocktail Competition judges panel:

  • Andrew Guerin, USBG NOLA: Bartender and Cocktail Specialist at Bourbon “O”, National Finals Judge for Lucid’s Cocktail Classique, Central Regional Judge for Patron Perfectionist
  • David Hudson, USBG Birmingham: Bartender and Cocktail Smith at KRU on Mt Meigs, 2018 Bartender of the Year Montgomery, Bacardi’s “The Legacy” Regional Finalist
  • Akinde Olagundoye: we are currently waiting on accomplishments and will update when we receive them
  • Meghan Wright, USBG Palm Beach: Brand Ambassador for Manifest Distilling, Bartender at 1000 NORTH and Death or Glory in West Palm Beach, FL

Here’s what our judges had to say:

DIG: What makes a good cocktail?

Guerin: A great cocktail combines quality ingredients, balance and has a story to tell. The drink speaks for itself, if you will.

Hudson: Balance. Balance. Balance. A cocktail can showcase a spirit or flavor and still find itself in balance. 

Olagundoye: A good cocktail uses quality ingredients put together in a thoughtful manner. It should be balanced in terms of flavors. Not too sweet, sour, bitter, salty or savory. A little complexity of flavor is always nice. Aroma and presentation are also important because we taste with our eyes and nose before we ever put something in our mouth. The best way to know if a cocktail is good, is if you would gladly have a second one. 

Wright: Balance, of course, is most important. You want every ingredient to be layered beautifully while highlighting the base spirit. I like to think of a good cocktail like a good book: with a beginning, middle and an end. Or in liquid terms: like a good glass of wine. You have the nose, the palate, and the finish. Whether it’s a book, or a glass of wine, a good cocktail makes you do the same. You sit back, go “Wow”, and think about the flavor ride you just went on.  

D: What are you hoping to see at the competition this year?

G: I’m hoping to see competition that truly enjoys being there and loves the moment. What’s the point if you aren’t excited to “be involved” 

H: A wide variety of drinks. Warm. Cold. Creamy. Tiki? Who knows? Get creative with it.

O: I want to see a community of passionate bartenders come together to support each other and have some fun. I view competitions as lighthearted opportunities to creatively express yourself as a bartender. And make some friends. Maybe get some bragging rights. Everybody wins. 

W: Being from another state, I cannot wait to see the difference in culture and cocktail styles at this competition. Regions vary vastly in what’s popular and requested, and also techniques. Competitions are a great way to discover the best and what’s new in cocktail evolution, and I don’t think I’ll be disappointed with these competitors. 

D: What piece of advice would you give to the competing bartenders?

G: The best advice I can offer is don’t try to do too much, don’t overcomplicate it.

H: Preparation is key. Bring everything. Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

O: Don’t stress. Practice making your drink a few times so it feels more natural when you’re on stage. Be early. Prepare before the last minute so you don’t forget anything. Don’t take things with you that you don’t need. Get up there, and just bartend. You’re good at it. 

W: Competitions are much more than the cocktail you made. The presentation of the bartender is more important than the presentation of the drink. Especially in a competition such as this, you realize everyone is going to have a good cocktail. In my experience, what always sets the winner apart is the preparation; the presentation, and the story. Know everything you can about your spirit of choice (the one you chose for your cocktail), and when to incorporate that knowledge when you’re presenting your cocktail. Know the portfolio. Step up your story telling game and have a way to tie in your personality, your experiences, and how those helped you create your cocktail. Rehearse, prepare, be genuine, and be nervous. Nerves are good.

D: The holidays are quickly approaching. What advice would you give to individuals who plan to make drinks at home for parties? 

G: Holiday parties bring stress. Batching is crucial. Minimize the workload if you can.

H: Punch is where it’s at! There are so many varying punch recipes out there to suit all tastes. Most of all, they can be prepared ahead of time, leaving you more time to mingle with guests at your party.

O: If you’re hosting a party, you probably want to spend more time mingling than making drinks. It’s a good idea to make a holiday punch or something that you can make a large batch of, in advance. Mulled wine and egg nog are good options. This will give you more time with your guests and its always fun grabbing a ladle and pouring your own. 

W: Know your crowd, know your guests. My family loves wine, so I always love to make a festive sangria when I visit home for the holidays. That way I can show off some skills but keep it in their comfort zone. 

D: Describe your favorite cocktail for the holiday season.

G: Heritage Distillery makes Brown Sugar Bourbon at 103 proof. The stuff is great. Put it in a toddy or old fashion and you have me. That being said, any Laird’s Apple Brandy, warmed and in a snifter, is my happy place.

H: The Snowball is a drink that changed my world. Popular around the holidays in various parts of Europe, it’s made with Advocaat (a traditionally Dutch brandy-custard liqueur), fresh lime juice, lemonade and a dusting of cinnamon. Truly delightful and low ABV cocktail.

O: My favorite cocktail for the holidays is a Manhattan. I prefer a bonded (100 proof) Rye whiskey, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters. The higher proof whiskey is great for that warming feeling. The herbs and spices in the vermouth and bitters taste like Christmas in a glass.

W: I’ve recently fallen in love with frozen eggnog this season. I hated eggnog growing up, and just recently realized as an adult how much better it tastes with bourbon and spiced rum. We have a frozen drink machine with eggnog at one of my bars and I taste it quite often, for quality assurance of course. There’s both bourbon and spiced rum, eggs of course, cream, sugar…. frozen and then grated with nutmeg. Classic, sentimental, and perfect for the warm winters of both Florida and Louisiana!


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