The first challenge in Netflix’s Drink Masters seems quite simple: make a margarita. Obviously, its professional mixologist contestants do not do what I’d do, which is splash some tequila into a glass with some Target margarita mix, because they’re not monsters.
But I was still surprised that they were given 90 minutes for that challenge. That’s twice as long as chefs on some cooking competitions get to make multiple dishes from scratch. An hour and a half to make a margarita?
What Drink Masters quickly does, though, is establish itself and the craft as about more than just mixing alcohol and other liquids in a glass. Mixology is presented as a culinary art, and the contestants combine ingredients, techniques, and presentation methods to create some truly spectacular cocktails—and in one case, potentially deadly.
Each episode of Drink Masters has two challenges: a big challenge, after which the contestants in the bottom compete to avoid elimination. Instead of lip syncing for their life, though, they’re in a mix-off.
They’re then judged by a two-person panel on taste, appearance, and creativity—which of course is the criteria for Chopped, if you replace “appearance” with “presentation.”
Like on Top Chef, the challenge is generally to do something new with familiar ingredients, and there are, alas, some Baking Championship shenanigans thrown in, with the challenge winner getting first pick and the ability to swap two contestants’ choices. It’s almost like the show doesn’t have the confidence in what it has to offer, so that stuff gets added.
The familiar elements don’t make for a dull show, though. What Drink Masters does is follow in the footsteps of Netflix’s own Blown Away or Discovery’s great A Cut Above and turn a craft into compelling television.
As it turns out, all three shows are produced by the same company: Marblemedia, which has single-handedly resurrected a subgenre of reality TV that Bravo used to traffic in in the late 2000s, one that showcases everyday crafts and art forms. (Drink Masters is also produced by Boomerang Productions Media.)
The difference between Bravo’s shows—and more-current ones such as Fox’s Lego Masters—is that Marblemedia’s shows make drama is secondary to craft. They are, however, big on character, showing us who the artists and craftspeople are, sometimes through the challenges but also in other parts of the show.
Perhaps because mixing drinks and cooking food are more familiar, from television and real life, Drink Masters gives a little more attention to process than Blown Away did, where suddenly an artist would have an amazing shape and I wouldn’t have a clear sense of where that came from.
One contestant bakes durian, pine nuts, and rum to incorporate that into his cocktail; others chill elevated Jello shots.
But it’s in presentation that everything is really elevated. The presentations of the cocktails are astounding, from the glassware to wisps of flavored smoke, and the show’s cinematography captures it and the preparation with a lot of smooth close-ups and slow motion shots.
All of this takes place in a massive bar set that manages to not look like a set, with its dripping chandeliers and towering shelves, all glowing gold and blue. The lighting is stunning, and not the typical culinary competition lighting.
Host Tone Bell, a comedian, is immediately terrific. He takes the competition seriously, approaching it with the elegance of an upscale bar, but also has fun.
He finds perfect moments of levity, from his opening bit to a moment when he introduces a fruit-infusion challenge by presenting a “sexy-ass display of fruit” and then, noticing the durian’s smell, says, “ugh, someone had dairy this morning.”
While he’s a bit awkward early on with a handful of scripted lines, his casual, improvised reactions are one of the show’s highlights for me.
The series judges, Julie Reiner (a mixologist, bar owner, and craft cocktail cookbook author) and Frankie Solarik (a cocktail bar owner who also has his own craft cocktail book), are immediately comfortable whether they’re explaining or judging.
Julie is the break-out judge so far for me, with her wonderfully direct and specific lines: “this is a combination I’ve tried eight million times,” she tells one contestant.
In the second episode, there’s a steady shot of judge Julie watching the contestants, one of whom goes running through the bar behind her, and suddenly disappears, having slipped on the ground. Both laugh.
During judging, one contestant, Alex, presents the judges with a bubbling margarita, and Frankie says, “the dry ice. If I was to consume one of those pellets, it will stick to my esophagus; it will then create carbon dioxide, and I will choke to death.”
“Yeah, I know,” Alex says, insisting he’s done this safely, anchoring the dry ice to the glass.
Julie replies, “if it’s not done correctly, you die,” and then explains they won’t drink the cocktail for safety reasons.
When Tone later Julie what Alex needed to do to stay in the competition, Julie says, “Not kill the judges?”
The judges are alive, thankfully, and so is this genre of reality TV, showing us what talented people can make, even under time constraints and the glare of television lights. Cheers to that!
Cheers to a classy culinary competition with cocktails, not cuisine, that elevates both the craft and this genre of reality TV. B+
What works for me:
- Highlighting a craft in competition form
- The show’s cinematography and contestants’ creativity
- The mood lighting and set design
- Host Tone Bell’s humor and improv
What could be better:
- A bit more explanation about what some mixologists are actually doing
- More confidence that the show is excellent without the need for gimmicks