Duff Said: What's fair?

20 December, 2018

Philip duff asks whether it’s really only the privileged, heavily-backed brands and bars that can afford to win awards

MY STEP-DAUGHTER, A WORLDY 13-YEAR-OLD Manhattanite, just finished taking the SHSAT, a three-hour exam that determines entrance to six or so of New York’s highest-rated, free public schools. Fair in theory, but an entire industry of ‘test prep’ exists, charging up to $4,000 for courses to give your wee darling an edge. It’s hardly fair to the kids whose parents can’t afford that, much less to the parents who haven’t even heard of the test, or the high-rated schools. We have a similar issue in the drinks business.

A lot of awards have been handed out recently. Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards, the World’s 50 Best Bars, the Mixology Bar Awards, and more. Then for brands there’s the Ultimate Beverage Challenge, the IWSC, the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and so many more again. All are important as they recognise hard-working staff – but also because they result in more sales. While back in the day a bar or brand just did its thing and was pleasantly surprised to learn it had won anything, nowadays concepts are designed from the ground up to win awards, and considerable effort and budget is devoted to doing just that, all to the betterment of the bottom line. Is that fair to those that don’t have such resources?

Well, what’s fair? If I’m born in Tripoli and you’re born in Tooting, I have a vastly worse life than you, but it’s just the luck of the draw. If you’re 6ft 7in and I’m 5ft 10in*, its obvious who’s got a better chance of playing in the NBA. But with a bar or brand, you could devote time to securing a larger budget from your investors, so you can chase those accolades, or, if you don’t own the bar or brand, negotiate with the powers that be for that budget and those resources. It cannot be a coincidence that the top five bars in the 2018 World’s 50 Best list this year are all well-financed hotel bars, nor that seven of the 17 Spirited Awards that were open to bars or bartenders were won by hotel bars or their employees.

Regarding competitions such as those for spirits, the definitive research was written by Robert T Hodgson in 2009. An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 US Wine Competitions researched 4,000 wines entered. The most telling detail is in Hodgson’s summary: “Of the 2,440 wines entered in more than three competitions, 47% received gold medals, but 84% of these same wines also received no award in another competition.” So, what makes up the difference? I think it’s public relations – having the funds and staff to make sure your product is entered in every contest, present at every spirits festival, featured in the media, widely distributed and so on. Most of that is, of course, simply good business practice. Once more, we come back to what’s fair. Is it fair to have an under-financed, under-staffed company then to complain when you don’t win awards that, realistically, require budget and staffing?

In the end, of course, it is us who are at fault. We give power to lists and awards by using them: to plan on-trade visits, to stock our home bars for maximum bragging rights, or to reassure owners we’re getting their brand into the ‘right’ places. Life is short after all. It’s easier to just say “Got a 94 from BTI” or “Let’s go to Dandelyan, it’s the world’s best bar” or “We just got listed at Three Sheets”. Awards won’t go away; they are the GPS of our industry. But just as you can turn off your Google Maps and your Tom Tom and enjoy getting lost, you can choose the path less travelled in a city – or a liquor store – and see what catches your eye.

*Just to be clear, this is purely an example – I am 5ft 10½in.

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