Five Questions With Award-Winning Cambridge Bartender Naomi Levy

thirst boston

Thirst Boston, a cocktail conference (seriously!) that brings the city’s bartending experts together for a celebration of sipping locally, returns on April 28 with panels, classes and—of course—a few parties.

One of those experts is Cambridge’s Naomi Levy, who’s participating in a seminar called “Title Town: How to Make Friends & Win Cocktail Competitions.” The decorated bartender, a Bacardi Legacy Champion and a Diageo World Class Finalist from 2014 through 2016, will join Schuyler Hunton and Will Isaza of Tiger Mama to talk about what it takes to be a winner.

But before Thirst Boston, we caught up with Levy to get some tips just for our readers—and learned that she’s pretty serious about the “making friends” part, too.

How did you start participating in cocktail competitions?

I first started doing competitions I was a younger, newer bartender, and it was a way to almost challenge myself. But as soon as I started them, I realized what an amazing community-building tool cocktail competitions are. At this point, I’ve expanded my network within bartending to include not just all of the amazing bartenders within Boston and New England but all over the United States, and because I got to represent the U.S. in a global competition, all over the world! I actually visited one of my fellow competitors in China two years ago. It really is such an incredible opportunity to learn from other bartenders from different parts of the country and different parts of the world.

So it’s not a cutthroat kind of thing?

Not at all! I’ve made dear, dear friends through it. There’s far more a spirit of camaraderie than there is anything cutthroat. As bartenders, I think we are always trying to push our field, as a group, forward. That’s what Thirst is all about. Yes, it’s a competition, yes, there’s prizes at stake, but at the end of the day, we’re all there to challenge ourselves. And that’s something that you get to do together, not necessarily against one another.

What’s the experience like as a competitor?

Every cocktail competition is a little different—and there are tons of them these days. Generally, as a competitor, you’re a little nervous. I’ve done a lot of them at this point, and my hands still always shake from the adrenaline. Lots of adrenaline, lots of nerves. But for a spectator, you’re really getting to see bartenders make something that they’ve put a lot of thought into, a really beautiful presentation of the cocktail.

The way many of these competitions work is that competitors will make a cocktail—they’ll present it in front of the judges, for the judges—while telling you about the cocktail, an origin story, their inspiration, anything like that. For bartenders, so much of what we do is storytelling. But a lot of the time, behind a busy bar, you only get to do it in little bits and pieces. This really gives the spectator a great presentation that they wouldn’t necessarily get to see in the goings-on of a busy night of service.

Why do you think you’ve been so successful in cocktail competitions—besides the fact that you’re a kickass bartender?

Well obviously, the drinks have to be good. You don’t get very far if the drinks aren’t good. [Laughs] But I think my creativity definitely plays a large role. I come from an arts background, so for me, thinking outside the box—as lame as that sounds—or thinking in flavors that other people don’t necessarily think to combine.

Aside from the drink-making part of it, and this does sound a little “made-for-TV-movie,” but I’m just myself. I think that’s something people can forget when they’re doing this. You’ve told this story to yourself 300 times, and you forget to just relax a little bit and be yourself. You have to remember that you’re there for a reason.

What are you looking forward to at Thirst?

Well what I love about it is that it caters to all kinds of different levels. If you’re a home enthusiast or you’ve been in the business for 15 or 20 years, there’s something for everybody. Competitions are a great community builder, and certainly, Thirst is as well. There’s ample opportunity not just to learn something but to participate in the social events and parties. You can talk to somebody or try a drink from someone you’ve never had a drink from before. I think that’s really wonderful.

Catch Title Town: How to Make Friends & Win Cocktail Competitions at noon on Sunday, April 30. Tickets and additional information are available here.