In the intensive world of competitive bartending, it’s not just your ability to craft the perfect cocktail that typically wins the judges over.
“It’s not even about the ingredients; it’s about the story,” said Dani Crowley, bartender at Whistler’s hippest cocktail bar, The Raven Room. “I’ve done so many of these competitions before, and that’s where you’re actually getting most of your marks on. You have to have a good story and you have to be able to present yourself well.”
Evidently, storytelling isn’t much of a problem for the award-winning barkeep. After years of humming and hawing, Crowley decided it was time to throw her muddler in the mix this winter at the world’s largest bartending battle, World Class, a gruelling, multi-day competition that has tested the mettle of thousands of renowned mixologists since it first launched in 2009.
“I actually, very last-minute, decided to enter. I’ve known about this competition for a long time and it has intimidated me for a long time,” Crowley said. “Everyone was like, ‘Just do it. What’s the harm in applying? Put yourself out there and do it.’”
Figuring she had nothing to lose, Crowley applied to the Canadian nationals with just a week to spare before the deadline. Her leap of faith paid off, as she was soon named to the top 30 finalists. But when the top 10 finalists were announced on social media, she didn’t see her name on the list. Then, she got an email saying she had placed 11th, making her an alternate for the national competition, slated for three days in Vancouver next month. (The World Class Global Final is scheduled for September in Sao Paulo, Brazil.)
Considering even eventual Global Final winners have applied year after year to the competition without so much as sniffing the top 10, Crowley is in rare company after her first kick at the can.
“It just goes to show how many times people push themselves just to get on the top 10 list,” said Crowley, who acknowledged it was “weird” to be preparing for a finals she’s not sure she will actually get to compete in.
Even still, she knows it is great practice for future World Class competitions if she doesn’t get to slot in this year.
“People apply again and again and now I’m going to have a foot in the door. They know me, I have all the challenge packages and I can prepare for next year,” Crowley added.
Even by the demanding standards of bartending competitions, World Class is on another level. Crowley said the challenges can vary greatly. One challenge asked bartenders to craft a cocktail, Chopped-style, using a mystery box of ingredients, while another required mixologists to make a drink that fell under a tight budget. There’s also blind whiskey tastings and intense speed rounds that would make even the most hardened barkeep blush. Some of the challenges get absurdly specific, like the one that banned competitors from using any ingredients they could find in their house, and another that required them to only use ingredients native to their hometown.
Through it all, competitors are frequently tasked with linking their cocktail creation to a compelling story or their own personal history, which Crowley had no problem with in her initial online application.
“I had a week to create a cocktail, and lucky for me, I had a story in my family that connected with one of the brands they have,” she said. “Everything fell into place and worked out so perfectly for me.”
Using Zacapa-brand rum out of Guatemala (all World Class competitors must make use of one of the many brands in competition sponsor Diageo’s extensive portfolio), Crowley was reminded of her parents’ epic love story. On the brink of separation after a decade together, her parents decided to forego a couple’s trip they had planned to Guatemala. But, not wanting to lose out on a vacation, both independently decided they would head to the Central American country on their own. Word got to Crowley’s dad through friends that his ex was planning her own solo trip, and he wrote her a love letter he left at a guest house he knew she would be staying at.
“He asked her to meet him at a specific place and they rekindled their relationship,” Crowley said. “Once I knew I had a story and some relationship to the rum, because of the place and the journey the rum goes on and my parents went on, I thought I would do well.”
With help from local videographer Kris Dontas, Crowley filmed a short video of her making her take on an old fashioned, overlaid with her voiceover and images of her parents’ three-decade-old love letters. (Crowley’s parents made sure to leave out the, uh, steamier passages.)
Watching the video, Crowley’s mom told her “It made us fall in love all over again.”
You can watch the video for yourself on Crowley’s Instagram, @drinkingwithdani. The Raven Room is open daily from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m.