OnMilwaukee Bartender Games arrive, compete with Olympics

For the past five years, the OnMilwaukee Bartender Olympics brought bartenders together from around the city for an evening of friendly competition and drinking.

The sixth-annual event at the Turner Hall Ballroom Thursday, however, will be called the Bartender Games on account of another similarly titled sporting event.

The sixth annual OnMilwaukee Bartender Games return to the Turner Hall Ballroom Thursday. Photo via Facebook
The sixth annual OnMilwaukee Bartender Games return to the Turner Hall Ballroom Thursday. Photo via Facebook

“We changed the name because we were contacted by the the U.S. Olympic Committee for causing confusion with the actual Olympics,” said Andy Tarnoff, publisher at OnMilwaukee.com, who described the cease and desist letter OnMilwaukee received from lawyers with far too much time on their hands.

Evidently, the stunning athletic prowess of Milwaukee bartenders and popularity of the games threatened to upstage the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi.

Competitors like Adam Griffin, a bartender at Fire Bar who has worked in the industry for 12 years, don’t seem concerned about the loss of their status as “Olympians.”

“The name change is okay,” Griffin said. “I didn’t give it a thought either way.”

The similarities between the competitions are, after all, stunning: both have teams and sponsors, although companies selling e-cigarettes and alcohol are not sponsoring Team USA. The OnMilwaukee Bartender Games, on the other hand, are sponsored by a variety of alcohol vendors including Absolut Vodka, Avion Tequila, Pama, 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey, Red Stag Hardcore Cider Infused Bourbon Whiskey and Fireball Whisky. Sponsor Johnson Creek Smoke Juice, a local e-cigarette company, will even let guests smoke e-cigarettes to their hearts’ content for the evening.

Unlike the Olympics, the Bartender Games only allow people 21 and older to enter, and have not reached an international level — yet.

Four Milwaukee teams will compete this year, including a “returning champions” team made up of competition winners from past years. According to Griffin, a previous champ, the team has been somewhat complacent in its training.

“We got together once and rehearsed some drinks, but nothing too serious,” Griffin said.

Along with the All-Stars, the Rookies and the Newbies, the teams will participate in four events throughout the evening. The first two rounds involve using tricks of the trade. There’s the signature cocktail contest and tasting complete with audience judges, and then the timed stacking of Pabst cans, where whoever stacks the highest wins. Next the teams show off their non-alcoholic skills in a talent competition and karaoke contest. Whichever team wins the most events takes home bundles of gift cards, booze and most importantly, the prestige of being the victor.

Griffin is upbeat about his team’s prospects at this year’s games.

“I’m confident,” he said. “Most others call it cocky, but whatever. I’m not worried about the others. (It’s) just no winner has ever won (a second time).”

Potential confusion with the Olympics aside, the Bartender Games bring everyone together to appreciate some of Milwaukee’s best bars and the industry professionals involved with them. They also create an event that, for alcohol aficionados, marks one of the city’s annual highlights.

“They’re a chance to get people in the service industry and fans of the industry together and watch bartenders do cool stuff in a tournament,” Tarnoff said. “I’m not just saying this because I’m involved, but this is one of the more fun things I go to every year.”

The combination of competition and booze consistently brings a crowd that ultimately wants one thing.

“It’s everybody, a lot of industry people, but it’s everybody that wants to get drunk on a Thursday,” Griffin said.

Since starting the event with a coworker six years ago, OnMilwaukee Manager of Sales Development Caroline Henning found that what ultimately defines the Bartender Games is the element of unpredictability the variety of people (and alcohol) bring to the table.

“The best part about it is you never know what to expect,” Henning said. “There are a definitely a mix of personalities that don’t care what anyone thinks and hilarious individual incidents that have made each year special.”

What these “incidents” are is a little more difficult to discern. With drink samples and an open bar with cheap drinks, recollections are hazier than a room full of e-cigarette smoke.

“I remember getting there both years and doing some stuff, and then it’s the next day,”  Griffin said. “I’m not sure I can tell you (anything) accurately, since I’m usually wasted and need to see the pictures days later to know what I did.”