Drinks International’s 23rd Cocktail Challenge

The 23rd Cocktail Challenge from Drinks International took place last month, making it one of the longest uninterrupted global cocktail competitions in the world


The Cocktail Challenge is a competition with a clear point of difference – we don’t aim to find the best bartenders in the world but to find brands that have created the best cocktails.

Some of the cocktails entered are brands’ new signature drinks, others are winners from their own cocktail competitions, while some are experimental mixes which, if successful, might be brought to market to showcase their product.

If just one of these drinks achieves traction in the industry and grows to become a modern classic, it can transform a brand’s sales. Just look at what the Moscow Mule did for Smirnoff all those years ago – get it right and you could have a global trend on your hands.

Not all the creations blind tasted at the Challenge are successful, but that’s what a testing ground is for. Our expert tasting panel – made up of members of The World’s 50 Best Bars – tends to give short shrift to those that don’t deliver, but they are never slow to praise brands that have hit on the right formula.

This year, I was joined by Simon Thompson, general manager of Callooh Callay (48th in the World’s 50 Best Bars 2016), Iain Griffiths, who runs Dandelyan (no.3 in 2016) and Alastair Burgess, owner of Happiness Forgets (10th in 2016), which was also the host bar of this year’s Cocktail Challenge.

Brands were asked to supply recipes and ingredients and it was Happiness Forgets’ Dan Garnell, one of the UK industry’s most promising bartenders, who was tasked to mix them.

The cocktails should be easily reproduced from recipes by bartenders if they are to ever really take off, so those that do well have recipes that are simple, with easy-to-follow methods. Our reasoning is that if a bartender of Garnell’s pedigree struggles to execute the drink, so will more mainstream bartenders, the target audience.

We blind taste because we want to judge the drink in isolation, free of marketing and brand stories that can sometimes influence the tasting environment. After all, it’s only right that medals are given to those drinks that pass muster on what consumers care most about – what it tastes like.

Garnell made 27 drinks that were blind-tasted by judges, who were informed as to the style – the Challenge is split into aperitifs, long drinks and after-dinner drinks – and also the category of alcohol that represents the principle ingredient. Two gold medals were awarded, five silvers and eight bronzes.

It was a mixed performance in the field, but this year’s Challenge was not without some noteworthy drinks that impressed the panel.


Apertifs have made a big comeback in recent years, so it was no surprise to see this was the largest category in the Cocktail Challenge. Of the 10 drinks tasted, one won gold, two silver, and five bronze medals.

The standout drink of the round – and indeed the entire tasting – was the Tinglet, from Pernod Ricard’s Olmeca Altos.

Judges described the drink (see recipe, right box) as “beautiful”. Happiness Forgets’ Burgess said: “You know it’s a tequila cocktail, even though there’s chocolate in there too.” Dandelyan’s Griffiths added: “I’d be happy to drink this throughout the day. It’s a drink that takes skill – it’s very well balanced.”

Callooh Callay’s Thompson simply said this was “the best drink” of the day and indeed the panel agreed it to be worthy of the title of Supreme Champion of the Cocktail Challenge 2016.

Silvers went to House of Elrick gin’s The Baron – which judges agreed was a “solid sour drink that you’d order in a bar” – and Staibano fruit liqueur’s Staibano Basil Sour, which judges said was “presented so well it would be a big seller in a bar and had great balance and aromas”.

Other silvers came in the form of Jack Daniel’s 150th Anniversary Champagne Sazerac, which judges said was a well-balanced twist on the classic, and Woodford Reserve’s Last Cause, which was described as “thoroughly drinkable”.


Long drinks are starting to be taken more seriously in the bar world, but – because of their dilution – are probably the hardest style to get right.

Of the five long drinks entered into this year’s Cocktail Challenge, one took gold, one silver and one bronze. The favourite was Finlandia’s B&B Snap, a beetroot and vodka drink with a retro apple fan garnish (see recipe right). Judges said the balance of sugar, acidity and bitterness was perfect and that “you couldn’t improve it in any way”. As to the retro garnish Dandelyan’s Griffiths said: “The fan works – it gives height dimension and a colour variation.”

It was a strong performance from Finlandia this year. Having taken gold in the Long Drinks category, it also took silver with the Veggie Sour, which judges described as a “tasty drink of lemon and zingy, sherbet notes”.


Surprisingly the After Dinner Drinks category didn’t offer up any gold or silver medalists but, of the eight drinks judged, there were two that received bronze medals. Jack Daniel’s The King of the Sandwich was judged the best of the category, though the panel thought “the balance was a touch out” and might have been bettered with the addition of bitters.

The Metaxa Ginger Sour was described as a “solid sour”, but the rosemary garnish wasn’t adding to the overall impact of the drink.