The results are in! The 2022 Cognac Connection Challenge saw over 170 entries, which have been judged and narrowed down to 10 finalists, including three grand prize winners. All 10 finalists will receive $1,000 and have their winning cocktail recipes featured in this year’s digital recipe booklet. The three lucky grand prize winners will also receive a trip to Cognac, France, where they can immerse themselves in the spirit at its source.
New to the challenge? The Cognac Connection Challenge is a virtual cocktail competition initiative that aims to further educate and inspire bartenders across the United States about Cognac as a spirit and a region. The competition is sponsored by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), in partnership with Speed Rack co-founders Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix, and VinePair, and challenges bartenders to use Cognac in complementary and creative ways in signature cocktails.
Here are the 2022 Cognac Connection Challenge winners — and their winning cocktails.
Grant Jacobs – Alouette (Grand Prize)
Grant Jacobs is currently head bartender at Genever in Los Angeles. He says participating in the Cognac Connection Challenge has opened his eyes to the diverse role Cognac can play in cocktails. “I have a newfound fondness, comfort, and respect [for the spirit],” he says. “I will be using this [in my cocktails] going forward.”
In his Alouette cocktail, Jacobs pairs the bright stone fruit characteristics of a VS Cognac with sherry, Angostura bitters, and Demerara syrup to create a late-summer/early autumnal version of a Mint Julep. Jacobs says he chose VS Cognac, the youngest expression within the category, because minimal aging keeps the spirit fruit-forward with fewer oak and vanilla notes. The cocktail is finished with an apricot fan and cinnamon stick garnish, aromatics that enhance the Alouette’s inherent fruity and warm spice characteristics.
Sarah Troxell – 99 Aloha Shirts & a Tiny Umbrella (Grand Prize)
Galveston, Texas’s Sarah Troxell has been working in hospitality since she was old enough to have a car and a job, amassing skills in the front of house, in the kitchen, and behind the bar. For the last eight years, she’s zeroed in on craft bartending, which combines her love of hospitality and guest interaction with the creativity of food and flavors.
Troxell’s tropical cocktail, the 99 Aloha Shirts & a Tiny Umbrella, uses a high-proof VS Cognac to help the spirit stand out against the flavors of passion fruit, lime, pineapple, vanilla, and macadamia. “The minerality [of the Cognac] plays well with the bright tropical fruits, and the passion fruit liqueur helps amp up the floral notes of the Cognac,” she explains. The cocktail is finished off with a salted coconut tincture and garnished with a lemon wedge, mint spring, and — you guessed it — a tiny umbrella.
John Ware – Cognac / Camomilla (Grand Prize)
With over a decade of bi-coastal experience in hospitality, bartender John Ware has found his niche melding Italian spirits and drinking culture with top-notch cocktails at Forsythia in New York City. Ware says being a part of this year’s Cognac Connection Challenge was a “hugely educational” experience that guided his first real deep dive into the category — and even led him to his new favorite cocktail.
For his entry, the Cognac / Camomilla, Ware presented a refined take on the highball that features strong notes of honey, cardamom, and chamomile. When it came to choosing the perfect expression, he knew the deeper dried fruit and nuttiness found in older Cognacs would overpower the delicate flavors. “I needed the lightest possible expression of Cognac, and the VS fit the bill perfectly,” he says.
Justin Brody – Alpine Wizard
After 10 years of professional cooking experience, Portland, Ore.’s Justin Brody started experimenting with building cocktails at home. Currently, he bartends at Takibi, a Japanese izakaya focused on ingredients and producers from the Pacific Northwest. He also serves nautical cocktails via his pop-up, Overland. Joining the Cognac Connection Challenge and learning about the effects of the different types of soil in the Cognac regions has made Brody think about the crop-to-product process in a new light.
For his entry, Alpine Wizard, Brody built a cocktail inspired by scenes from Hayao Miyazaki’s “Howl’s Moving Castle.” Although he originally tested the drink with a VS Cognac, he realized the characteristics of a VSOP suited the drink much better. “The rich vanilla notes of the VSOP tie together the mint and menthol flavors of the Braulio with the clove and cinnamon spice of the Angostura — and make for a great balance with the tropical pineapple and lime,” he says.
Nat Froikin – Volant Pardieu
Based out of Chicago, Nat Froikin is a double-threat bartender and chef with a background in biochemical scientific research. His complex cocktails focus on ethical and sustainable production. Participating in the Cognac Connection Challenge challenged Froikin to re-evaluate his perception of the spirit. “Through this experience, I have greater respect for the way this Old World spirit has maintained historical legacy while still finding relevance in cultural trends globally,” he says.
In his cocktail, Volant Pardieu, Froikin says he chose to highlight the holistic perspective of the Cognac region through the use of local ingredients. For his Cognac, he says only a single-cru from the Borderies would do. The Volant Pardieu features a butter-roasted chanterelle mushroom-infused Cognac that pairs the terroir minerality of the spirit with the earthiness of the mushrooms, while violet notes in the Cognac bring out the floralness of the drink’s chamomile syrup.
William Patton – La Mort d’un Roi
William Patton is the beverage director of Bresca and Jônt in Washington, D.C. In his four years there so far, Patton has worked with Chef Ryan Ratino to build out the beverage vision for both concepts. During the Cognac Connection Challenge webinars, Patton found himself most fascinated by the similarities between Cognac’s distillation processes and winemaking processes. As such, he was inspired to approach utilizing Cognac in his cocktail much the same way he would utilize wine.
For his La Mort d’un Roi, Patton constructed a cocktail with a VSOP, Byrrh, dry sherry, and cherry cordial. Choosing a well-aged Cognac with flavor similarities to an XO “helped me achieve the best of both worlds as the extra aging time adds some secondary and tertiary notes such as roasted bread, butterscotch, and fig, while still exhibiting the vibrancy of a [VSOP],” he explains.
Nicole Salicetti – Are We There Yet?
Nicole Salicetti has been in NYC’s make-or-break bar scene for over 20 years, behind the bar, creating cocktail menus, and teaching her peers. During the city’s pandemic lockdown, Salicetti leveraged her experience as a bartending instructor and began leading cocktail-building sessions (which she continues to do today). She credits that time, in part, for her newfound appreciation of Cognac, sharing that after having Covid-19 herself, she began to experience flavors differently, picking up on subtle notes that she hadn’t noticed previously.
Her Are We There Yet? Cognac Connection entry is built as a sensory journey through the cocktail’s layers of lavender, genmaicha syrup, Angostura bitters, sherry, lemon, and rose. “I was really inspired by the aroma and palate of the Cognac I chose,” she says. “I wanted to build a cocktail that took you on a slow journey with your senses.” Although Salicetti chose to use a VSOP Cognac for her drink, she says her choice was more about the specific notes of the brand she chose, rather than the type of expression.
Mark Sassi – Le Téléphone Arabe
During his time off, Cognac Connection finalist Mark Sassi can usually be found outdoors with his partner and dog, but when he’s managing the bar at Seattle’s Rob Roy, it’s all about the cocktails. During the Cognac Connection webinars, Sassi says he was inspired to learn about Cognac’s deep connection to history and culture, and how intimately linked Cognac is to its terroir and the crus where it is produced.
For his Le Téléphone Arabe cocktail, Sassi leaned in on the sweet and herbal notes found in VSOP Cognac, which is aged for a minimum of four years. Le Téléphone Arabe pairs Cognac with coffee-infused sherry, Cynar, and equal parts absinthe, cardamom, and Angostura bitters in order to highlight the Cognac VSOP’s notes of caramel, dark chocolate, and tobacco.
James Wieland – Bonsoir to Cognac
Hailing from Milkwakee, James Wieland likes to experiment with his cocktail ingredients. Currently working at Twisted Path Distillery, Wieland says he was most impressed to learn about all of the factors involved in the production of Cognac “from the acidity, yield, and soil minerality to how distillers ferment their grapes to highlight the subtlety in the craft from farm to bottle.”
Wieland’s Bonsoir to Cognac cocktail is a take on the Negroni, calling for VS Cognac, Lillet Blanc, flower-infused Suze, a few drops of saline solution, and orange peel garnish. “The French ingredients are a nod to the classic cocktail and the Italian origin of the Ugni Blanc used to create the base spirit [of Cognac],” he says.
Tara Yadgir – Against the Waves
Tara Yadgir started off bartending at a craft distillery in Pittsburgh, though you’ll currently find her behind the bar at craft cocktail bar Spirit House in Chandler, Ariz. She says learning about the six different crus of Cognac and how the soil affects the spirits’ aging time inspired her to hunt down Cognac from each region and do a side-by-side tasting.
Her Against the Waves cocktail is a nod to the ocean and uses a VSOP Cognac aged at sea. “A Cognac aged at sea had the flavor profile I wanted to highlight in my cocktail,” she says. “I added manzanilla sherry to enhance the briny, salty notes from the Cognac, and a lemon aperitif for brightness.”
This article is sponsored by Cognac.