Why the Spirited Awards Are More Important Than Ever This Year

During this year’s Tales of the Cocktail event, the Tales of the Cocktail Foundation (TOTCF) will celebrate the 15th annual Spirited Awards® a little differently.

This year’s Spirited Awards Ceremony will announce winners for just five categories:

  • Helen David Lifetime Achievement Award
  • Pioneer Award
  • Timeless U.S. Award
  • Timeless International Award
  • Writing and Media Awards (Best Cocktail & Spirits Publication; Best Cocktail & Spirits Writing; Best New Cocktail or Bartending Book; Best New Book on Drinks Culture, History or Spirits; and Best Broadcast, Podcast or Online Video Series)

This year’s awards look back at 2020—an extraordinary and exceedingly difficult year for the hospitality industry marked by unemployment, bar closures, COVID-19 government shutdowns, global travel restrictions, and more. For these and many other reasons, the Spirited Awards Chairs felt there was no fair way to judge and evaluate bars for this year’s awards.

spirited awards 2021 tales of the cocktail

“It was a very long process to get to that final decision as you can imagine,” says Charlotte Voisey, the 2021 Spirited Awards Overall Chair. “The Spirited Awards really exists to celebrate excellence in the industry and to serve the industry—it’s in service to the industry at large.

“Any given year is a look back on the prior year as to sort out the best of the best. So when it comes to 2021, looking back on 2020, clearly it is a very, very different, unprecedented scenario. How on earth do you look back on 2020 and treat it as any other year in the industry?”

The reality? You can’t.

The Spirited Awards are traditionally rooted in comparing bars inter-/intra-regionally, and the Awards empower judges who travel frequently for their jobs to give their professional opinions and comparisons. “Logistically, judges weren’t able to travel last year, so that wasn’t even possible. There wasn’t a fair way to judge operations because people just weren’t seeing the comparison,” says Voisey. “But moreover, as you can appreciate, it just didn’t feel like that was what the industry needed. It didn’t need to be compared. We didn’t want to put it out there as a survival of the toughest type thing. It just didn’t feel right.”

Instead, the TOTCF decided to revamp the Spirited Awards through the lens of the organization’s 2021 theme, Community, and focus on the people who came together to help the industry survive.

“[What we wanted to do] was to look at how people had come together to survive and get through it and tell some of the more inspirational stories that could help people going forward,” says Voisey.

The Foundation thought the awards celebrating the pioneers and lifetime achievers did just that. “The Lifetime Achievement Award is obviously an award that recognizes literally a lifetime of contribution, so we thought that that was still relevant, and the same with the Pioneer Award,” says Voisey. “In fact, it’s quite an important moment as the industry does suffer such difficult times to recognize those people that really do contribute. Often, it’s in the hardest times that we see the bravest of souls or the most courageous contributions to the industry.”

The Foundation also chose to move forward with the Writing and Media Awards. “While writers and media at large in the industry were also dramatically affected, they were still able to do their work. And in fact, a lot of what their work did was really helpful to the industry—sharing stories, writing about poignant efforts by certain people in the industry, bringing attention, raising awareness to what happened,” says Voisey. “Judging or assessing those works is still completely possible, and it is possible to do in a fair way.”

But why not just postpone the Spirited Awards entirely until 2022? The TOTCF felt that the benefits of the Awards—even on an abridged level—were too great to postpone them entirely.

Obviously, the immediate benefit of the Awards is to reward recipients for excellent work. But in doing so, the Spirited Awards also serve to inspire the industry as a whole. It was that inspiration that the TOTCF didn’t want to lose. “You hold up a best-in-class example, which other people can aspire to, which I think encourages creativity and encourages people to be their best selves,” says Voisey. “It’s not just about proclaiming somebody the best therefore others aren’t as valuable to the industry—it’s really more about inspiration.”

It’s also about mentorship. Over the Spirited Awards’ 15-year history, many industry institutions and names have been honored. “The majority of those aren’t just good at what they do, but they are really invested in the industry, and they want to help. So it almost develops into this beautiful networking group,” says Voisey. “You can then connect younger people who are coming up through the industry with previous award winners who tend to be that much more experienced and capable in what they do. They can offer that mentorship or that guidance.”

This year’s Tales of the Cocktail 2021 conference will be held in a primarily digital format from September 20-23, 2021. As a result, the winners of the Spirited Awards will be announced digitally during the Spirited Awards Ceremony on September 23, 2021. The ceremony will be available live in a digital format and will be live streamed from bars in key markets, wherever it is safe and feasible to host in-person happy hours.Tales Spirited Awards 2021

While the traditional awards honoring bars and venues will not happen, the TOTCF is planning a series of roundtable discussions representing each of the eight regions from around the world that traditionally participate in the Spirited Awards. The discussions will cover how the different regions dealt with COVID-19 as well as the themes that have emerged.

The roundtables will be made up of co-chairs and judges from the region. “We got them together and we said, tell us about the bars that have done great things last year so we can really paint a picture of how the region coped during COVID,” says Voisey. “Honestly, some of the most moving, inspirational stories have come out. And it’s not necessarily the biggest and the fastest and the ones that raise the most money and that kind of thing—it’s the endeavors and the effort that people have put in that we have come to hear about.”

In light of the unprecedented travel and operational restrictions in place throughout the majority of 2020, anyone (bar, spirit/cocktail ingredient, etc.) who was unable to be considered for a “Best New” or comparable category in 2021 will remain eligible for that same category in 2022 to ensure an equitable process and opportunity for recognition.

“We believe the platform still had a duty to be of service to the industry so we tried to be helpful in that respect,” says Voisey. “It won’t just be overnight back to normal next year. It’s an ongoing process, and we’re trying to really reflect the industry in whatever state it is in; but hopefully it’s a much better one this time next year.”

– By Ashley Bray