Are Virtual Cocktail Competitions Actually Helping?

With a globe of bartenders out of work, booze brands are pivoting to new marketing strategies to match the change in times. Some are taking it to the streets, supporting bars on a ground-level with bottle donations. Others are holding online happy hours, hiring out-of-work bartenders as host; while some brands are engaging with bartenders via virtual cocktail competitions.

The latter has come under fire. Some brands are making a real impact with out-of-work industry members, but others are missing the point, hosting cocktail competitions under the guise of benefaction.

The problem is, these strategies feel like they neglect bartenders’ situation. The majority of bartenders in the country, and around the world, are out of work, relying on unemployment insurance to pay bills.

Many cocktail competitions running at the moment are asking bartenders to spend money on fresh ingredients and specific pricey bottles to create a cocktail that may or may not win only a few dollars.

One West Coast brand is offering winners $50, barely $10 dollars more than the price of the bottle. (Though of note, small distilleries are in no great position either in this day and age either. A wave of independent distilleries are expected to close under the financial strain of Covid-19.)

Another popular brand is gaining attention by asking industry members to post an image of their bottle. For everyone who does, $5 will be donated to the United States Bartender’s Guild relief fund. The brand’s image is then plastered on the feeds of hundreds of bartenders.

It’s helpful in concept, but the execution is uncomfortable.

It feels exploitive—like marketing disguised as goodwill. The brand is gaining the value of thousands of eyes on their ads, and most bartenders are not making a dime. Only a small percentage of USBG applicants receive funds⁠—the foundation is prioritizing those in dire needs, and hundreds of thousands have applied. The foundation simply doesn’t have the resources to help everyone who lost their job to COVID-19.

Essentially, bartenders are competing, fighting, begging for money to pay their bills, to pay their rent, to buy essentials. Brands are viewing these contests as a switch in marketing strategies, a way to gain attention, but they are not.

This is an industry in crisis and asking bartenders to battle for their chance to feed themselves is, frankly, wrong. It leaves out-of-work bartenders competing against each other to win paltry sums from million-dollar brands.

There’s a careful line to walk here. It’s consumers who are sitting at home, buying bottles to fuel their Zoom happy hours and socially-distanced drinking.

But when the world starts turning again, it will be bartenders ordering case after case to stock their bars for thirsty drinkers.

This isn’t to say contests ‘aimed’ at helping bartenders are all problematic. The concept just needs to be done with a sense of understanding of the situation bar and restaurant staff are in. These campaigns need to be devoid of marketing mannerisms.

So how can brands help in a meaningful way?

Many brands (Don Papa Rum and Tromba Tequila among them) are donating products to bars that are still open. Bars can use these bottles to make delivery and takeout cocktails and cocktail kits, putting more money in the bar’s registers.

One Belvedere rep went as far as buying care packages filled with food, booze, and supplies from a bar, dropping it off at the homes of bartenders who had supported the brand in the past. It brought in dollars to the bar, and support to the bartenders.

In this vein of thought, many brands are buying meals from bars and restaurants offering take-out and delivering them to front line workers at local hospitals.

Casa Dragones gave everyone who entered a recipe in their virtual cocktail competition $200, regardless of if they won or not. The tequila maker has earmarked $50,000 for the competition.

Several brands have opened ‘family tabs’ at local restaurants. Out-of-work bartenders can place an order, put it on the tab, and the brand will pick it up.

Other brands are hiring bartenders for virtual shifts—writing a check for a few hundred dollars for each ‘shift’ worked. It gives bartenders the chance to pop back behind a bar (or, their kitchen counter) and do what they love.

These acts of support are spoken with a whisper, not a scream. It’s not asking bartenders to compete, nor does it feel like a play for more press. They are helping hands to an industry in need.

But what a brand can really do right now is provide solidarity. Help bartenders lobby in their states for support. Talk to bartenders with longstanding relationships with the brand—ask what you can do to help and what they need the most from brands. It’s a small question to ask, but one that will be remembered for years after this crisis comes to a close.

Kate Dingwall
Kate Dingwall
Kate Dingwall is a writer and editor, primarily covering the spirits and travel world. Her work has appeared in, Wine Enthusiast,, MAXIM Magazine, DuJour Magazine, Eater, VinePair, Culture Trip, Canada's 100 Best Restaurants, and a number of other publications, online and print. Outside of writing, she is a sommelier and an avid martini drinker.

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