Ultimate Beverage Challenge awards double as a sales tool
By Francine Cohen
All photos by Daniel Krieger

WINNING! It’s not just Charlie Sheen’s popular catch phrase (or Giuseppe Gonzalez’s favorite too, if his Facebook page is any indication), but it’s why you enter your brand in competitions. For the guts and the glory. For the admiration from your peers, appreciation from consumers, attention at Tales of the Cocktail (www.talesofthecocktail.com) and a boost in sales. But really, how much glory is there in being the brand that won the double secret probation double gold medal? Why do competitions need “double” medals? One in each category is good enough for the Olympics; and it should be enough for spirit competitions.

That, in part, is why Paul Pacult and his band of merry mixology experts including Jacques Bezuidenhout, Dale DeGroff, Jim Meehan, Gaz Regan, Steve Olson, Audrey Saunders, Marcos Tello, David Wondrich, and more boldfaced names you know, love and respect, were hard at work judging cocktails and the spirits that go into them this past spring. In its second year, the Ultimate Beverage Challenge (aka UBC, actually a series of three competitions: Ultimate Spirits, Ultimate Cocktails, Ultimate Wine) www.ultimate-beverage.com, continues to lead the way towards enlightened spirits recommendations and turns the competition game on its head. Pacult comments, “I just think it’s simple. When you put together the best mixology, the best cocktailians in the world, authors, journalists, bartenders, and consultants then we set up a situation where not only do we have the leading efforts, we have the methodology. And those two things bring credibility.”

And that credibility, and clarity, is so important. Particularly when you find yourself somewhere like the Publix grocery store on Glades Road in Boca Raton, Florida, awash in a sea of wines and spirits, many of which are proudly displaying neck tags touting their many medals won from some unknown judging body. What do those medals really mean? Is the tennis playing soccer mom who lives in the gated community down the road going to understand what those medals stand for? And why are they valid? Who knows.

It’s a question for the ages. And the skeptical. Pacult notes, “The fact that we don’t give medals really works in our favor. We’re differentiating ourselves from just about all other competitions which issue medals like peanuts at the circus. What we’re doing is we’re trying to do is recognize quality and then recognize the very best of the best as finalists and chairman’s trophy winners. When consumers and trade sees that imprimatur from UBC knowing who these judges are this is increasingly becoming the best advertising companies can have. Just because of the built in integrity of the system and the judges.”

A noted panel of judges helps, but exposing the new competition concept to a wide audience was a bit of a challenge for Pacult. He explains, “What we’re doing is so diametrically opposed to what all the other competitions are built on. I wasn’t really sure if the industry would embrace our concept. I don’t believe in all honesty that the whole industry has embraced our concept. The reason I don’t is I think marketers and pr agencies are still erroneously seduced by the thought that a medal actually means something. Because it’s the norm. And so it’s going to take a while for people to understand that what we’re building is very different. It’s a very different animal in understanding what quality is.”

Julie Reiner, Ultimate Cocktail Challenge judge and the proprietor of Flatiron Lounge, The Clover Club and Lani Kai, is thrilled that “normal” is getting a whole new look. She comments, “Leave it to Paul to come up with a truly new way to look at cocktails. I looked around the room at my fellow judges and thought, we are really doing something groundbreaking and important here with Ultimate Cocktail Challenge. Paul’s judging methodology and criteria make UCC the most credible competition I know. And I can speak for every one of the UCC judges when I say we are all in favor of better cocktails!”

Lizzie Asher, President of Macchu Pisco (www.macchupisco.com) is one member on the supply side of the spirits industry who is actively embracing this competition. It’s because she sees real on and off premise value to being involved as she notes, “This is the gold standard in terms of competitions.”

While her Pisco has won multiple awards at various competitions, the bottle only displays two of them; the ones garnered at the Ultimate Spirits and Ultimate Cocktail Challenges. Why? She explains, “The reason we decided to add these to our bottles as opposed to everything we do is a reflection on how the competition is perceived. There are competitions everywhere. And, not to be derisive of everyone else’s effort but not all competitions, medals and awards have equal standing. That this is a blind tasting and there is faith this is a blind tasting and that it is not just a panel handing out bronze, silver and gold but that they are handing out a numerical value is incredibly important. The people with the gifted taste buds in our industry have deemed this [Macchu Pisco] worthy of 94 points. It’s a ranking that is parallel to what consumers in the market already know because of the wine industry and that familiarity is so important. This helps us and that’s why we put it on the bottles.”

Identifying the bottles with the UBC mark is something all the winners have an opportunity to do as they can download the icon for free and use that in all their collateral. Pacult says, “This is stuff that could really push forward a brand. The information is there. If people don’t use the information, shame on them. I know that Broker’s Gin, which won the Chairman’s Trophy for gin in the first year, said sales went up exponentially because of what they were doing in terms of marketing. Not just in the US, but around the world. The reach of Ultimate Beverage Challenge is really going beyond the boundaries of North America. People are seeing it around the world as a really viable vehicle to promote their brands.”