5/07/2012 10:52:00 AM

Beard Awards: A Look at the New Outstanding Bar Program Category

A cocktail at The Violet Hour, one of this year's nominees 
Tonight is one of the biggest evenings in the food industry - the James Beard Awards! The Oscars of the food world have been honoring top chefs and restaurants for 25 years now, but this time there is a pretty epic change. The organizers have added a category for Outstanding Bar Program for the first time ever. It will recognize a restaurant that displays excellence in spirit, cocktail and/or beer service. Finally, sommeliers aren't getting all the glory! We chatted with Mitchell Davis, Executive Vice President of The James Beard Foundation to see what the thinking was behind this new category.

Check out the interview below, and stay tuned for full coverage of the Beard Awards tomorrow.

Zagat: Why did you decide this year to introduce the outstanding bar program award?

Mitchell Davis: It seemed that the cocktail culture has broken out of niche urban markets and spread to restaurants and lounges everywhere. And as the investment that restaurants and businesses put in their bar programs increased, and different mixologists and bar managers were beginning to make their own mark on the hospitality industry, it was time to recognize their work.

Z: Do you think the public is ready to take drink making as seriously as they take cooking?

MD: I think some people may take drink making more seriously than cooking already. But there's something for everyone in the world of gastronomy. I think one feeds the other. Attention to taste, appreciation of artisanship, and connoisseurship are at the foundation of cooking, wine, and the bar world. They are all of a piece, and we are happy to acknowledge those who deserve credit for their efforts.

Z: Do bartenders deserve the same acclaim as chefs, or does their job require less creativity since there are only so many alcohols to choose from?

MD: Impossible to say. The range of drinks, including homemade ingredients seems endless. In fact, many of the same ingredients are used in both places, even bacon. Some bars now have what they call "bar chefs.” Who knows where it might go. All a matter of personal interest and taste.

Z: Will cocktail making ever be as large a part of popular culture as food is, or will the taboos surrounding the alcoholic component limit its appeal. For example, will we ever see cocktail-centric shows on the cooking channel. 

MD: Again, hard to say. We do a lot of things at the Beard Foundation but we don't predict the future. For many reasons, some of them personal, some of them health, some of them religious, some about personal history, not everyone can get behind the cocktail/bar craze, just as some people with allergies, intolerances, and religious limitations can't enjoy all food. We just believe that if you are going to do something in the hospitality industry, you ought to pay attention to it and do it well. Those that do it best deserve to be recognized.

Z: What characteristics do you think the winning nominee will have to have / showcase better than the others on the list?

MD: A good balance between creativity and tradition. Even the most creative bartender needs to master the classics. Another important quality I think is understanding the true nature of hospitality, that our job is to make our guests happy, not just to show off our talents or knowledge for our own sake, but to make people comfortable and give them something they love. The winner will also likely be someone who inspires others to work hard to and to improve. All of the nominees fit these characteristics, to it would be hard to choose. Can't wait to toast the winner.

Z: What cocktail will you relax with after the beard awards are all said and done this year?

MD: I usually fall back on one of two drinks, the Manhattan and the negroni. We'll see what I'm in the mood for when all is said and done. Probably just a glass of water and some sleep.


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