Meet the National Finalists for the VinePair x Rémy Martin Bartender Talent Academy Cocktail Competition

Want to try some incredible cocktails and meet the mixologists behind them? Do you live in NYC? RSVP here to the VinePair x Rémy Martin Bartender Talent Academy Cocktail Competition National Finals to watch these 6 contestants compete at the live finale party! 

Since its founding in 1724, Rémy Martin has built a legacy that is both rooted in history and constantly evolving. Less than 100 years after the eponymous brand began, barrels of Cognac crossed oceans to delight the senses of imbibers worldwide, offering a piece of French culture that would soon become synonymous with quality.

Today, Rémy Martin is known for much more than premium Cognac. In its nearly 300 years of history, Rémy Martin has established itself as a leader of innovation, offering platforms like the Bartender Talent Academy, an annual competition where talented mixologists can push the limits of their creativity, for a chance to experience – and become a part of – the Rémy Martin family.

This year’s competition asked bartenders to travel back in time to one of three iconic eras – the Golden Age, the Disco Era, or the Modern Era – and reinvent an equally iconic cocktail: the Sidecar. Blending an old-world-meets-new philosophy, each competitor added their own flair to their cocktail, beating out thousands of participants with their one-of-a-kind recipe.

Not only have these 6 semi-finalists crafted a delicious drink, but they’ve also instilled their unique perspective into it, adding another chapter to Rémy Martin’s story. One winner from the U.S. will move on to compete against other country’s finalists in Cognac, back where it all started.

In the meantime, make yourself a Sidecar and read on to see what kind of cocktails these experts have shaken up.

The Bartender: Gaby Holzer

Region: Midwest
Works at:  Thyme x Table
Cocktail Era: Disco
Cocktail: The Suzette

Rémy Martin Bartender Talent Academy Cocktail Competition

Utilizing her creativity and penchant for hospitality, Holzer has been a bartender for 7 years. For her take on the Sidecar, she turned to a decidedly more family-friendly facet of the ‘70s: Julia Child.

“While disco was reigning in the club scene in the 1970s, French cuisine was taking over in the American kitchen, in large part due to the emergence of Julia Child,” she says. “Chances were, you could walk into any neighborhood home and see her cooking show on the television, and find a copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” on the kitchen shelf.”

Taking notes from the beloved figure, Holzer crafted a Sidecar inspired by Child’s recipe for Crêpes Suzette, a buttery, orange-y, spiced crêpe that has existed since 1895.

“Julia Child’s recipe requires lots of butter because, in her words, ‘with enough butter, anything is good,’” Holzer says. “The Suzette calls for salted, butter-washed Rémy Martin 1738, which provides a lush and fatty mouthfeel to complement notes of dried fruit, nuts, toffee, and oak in the Cognac.”

Though she’s excited to show off her recipe in person, Holzer is grateful to be able to represent her hometown of Cleveland on a national stage. “I’m excited to share my creative lens with my peers and see how they approached their creations as well.”

Check out Gaby’s Instagram: @gabyholzer

The Bartender: Adam Fournier

Region: Southwest
Works at: Wolfsglen
Cocktail Era: Modern
Cocktail: The Sidebar

Rémy Martin Bartender Talent Academy Cocktail Competition

Fournier traded Erie, Pennsylvania for sunny Los Angeles over ten years ago and hasn’t looked back since. In those ten years, he’s been behind the bar at fine dining establishments and on the competition circuit; he has represented the U.S. in other competitions at the global level.

“The Rémy Martin Sidecar Competition is an opportunity to meld the traditional with the modern and stretch creative muscles with a brand that is as innovative as it is iconic,” Fournier says. “What I’m most looking forward to as a finalist is seeing the creativity and skill of the other competitors. The work of our community is my biggest source of inspiration.”

For his take on the Sidecar, Fournier kept it contemporary by implementing modern techniques and crafting a minimalistic build, as well as by utilizing locally sourced produce. “The drink plays homage to two other classics – they had a ‘sidebar’ conversation,” he says, noting that Rémy Martin 1738 works especially well with Champagne Citrus Cordial, his lemon juice replacement.

When he’s not shaking up Sidecars, Fournier is advocating for mindful drinking, cracking open a leather-bound book, exploring “nerd stuff,” and sharing his passions with the world.

Check out Adam’s Instagram: @bottledinbondla

The Bartender: George Kaiho

Region: South
Works at: Jettison
Cocktail Era: Golden Age
Cocktail: Le Quatre

Rémy Martin Bartender Talent Academy Cocktail Competition

When it comes to crafting cocktails, Texas-based bartender Kaiho draws inspiration from his Japanese-American heritage. “My focus is to mix the two cultures,” he says. “The creativity and freethinking of American cocktail culture with the precision and attention to detail of Japanese culture.”

Inspired by the highly debated history of the Sidecar’s origins, Kaiho’s riff, the Le Quatre, takes inspiration from the Golden Age. “Among the major theories, I actually like the more realistic theory the most: when a bartender made a cocktail, sometimes they would make a little extra by accident, so they poured the extra cocktail into a smaller glass to serve, and that’s called the sidecar.”

In the upper echelon of 1920s-era Parisienne society, Sidecars were enjoyed regularly by the rich. Kaiho’s concept was to intensify the traditional cocktail by sourcing only the best ingredients – ingredients that would have been found in 1920s Paris.

“In a position of running a bar, I don’t get out or travel much, especially to other states and cities. The competition allows me to meet new people. I’m most excited to meet bartenders from other cities with great talent.”

Check out George’s Instagram: @georgekaiho

The Bartender: Dani Sanders

Region: Northwest
Works at: Hey Love
Cocktail Era: Disco
Cocktail: Counterculture Cover Gurl

Rémy Martin Bartender Talent Academy Cocktail Competition

Since she was 21, Sanders has put in work behind the bar, first by working at a pub before moving on to help open a cocktail bar a few years later. Now, Sanders is applying her years of experience to her Counterculture Cover Gurl cocktail, which is inspired by the Disco era.

“The ’70s were a true rebirth of a generation, a modern renaissance illuminated under the lights of the disco ball,” she says. “What inspires me about this glimmering era is that all people were celebrated: everyone danced and laughed and grooved with each other regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. The people loved to love, and they loved to be loved!”

Though love isn’t technically an ingredient in her Sidecar variation, those lucky enough to try it will certainly sense its presence. In addition, flavors of ginger, salt, and even gold dust will make themselves known in the cocktail. “This is exactly what I wanted my cocktail to inspire: an unforgettable moment when the celebratory history of Rémy Martin Cognac and the bright liveliness of lemon combine with the glamour of the gold electric dust and the warming spice of aged rum and ginger. A celebration of things coming together to make something beautiful.”

Check out Dani’s Instagram: @misspdx

The Bartender: Marco Pastanella

Region: Southeast
Works at: Four Seasons Hotel Miami
Cocktail Era: Golden Age
Cocktail: The Streetcar

Rémy Martin Bartender Talent Academy Cocktail Competition

Born in southern Italy, Pastanella has lived all over the world, including London, New York City, Charlotte, New Orleans, and Miami, where he now resides.

Pastanella’s cocktail draws inspiration from New Orleans, a city he is deeply connected to, and the “rum runners” who helped shepherd booze into the city during Prohibition. “While it was illegal to drink in the US, bartenders were flying around the world creating classic cocktails like the Sidecar and El Presidente, and smugglers were going back and forth from the Caribbean islands to America’s coasts importing rums,” he says. “New Orleans played a huge role in it thanks to its location.”

The Streetcar capitalizes on French-influenced New Orleanian culture by utilizing both rum and Lillet Blanc in addition to Rémy Martin Cognac. “This an amazing opportunity to share the same passion with like-minded people and learn from them,” Pastanella says. “What I’m most excited about is the overall experience of competing with amazing bartenders — and obviously the opportunity to visit Cognac.”

Check out Marco’s Instagram: @in_rum_we_trust

The Bartender: Christina Mercado

Region: Northeast
Works at: Hotel Viking
Cocktail Era: Modern
Cocktail: Golden Threads

Rémy Martin Bartender Talent Academy Cocktail Competition

As the owner of ShakeStirPour food and beverage consulting, it is Mercado’s goal to make the craft of mixology approachable to all.  She is also the assistant director of food and beverage for Hotel Viking in Newport, R.I. “My passion lies in exploring the depth of food and beverage through an art and science lens,” Mercado says.

Throughout her 15 years in the hospitality industry, she has worked in almost every position, from the back of house to the front of house, and everywhere in between. She draws much of her technique and cocktail inspiration from her time as a pastry chef.

“I have spent a good portion of this past year hyper-focused on learning as much as I can about Cognac. It’s an incredible spirit – from the farming of the grapes to the distillation of the eaux-de-vie, to the blending. It takes a team of skilled hands and palates,” says Mercado. “I am excited to see how the other regions approached the challenge – the U.S. is a big country – and how we work with flavors can vary state by state. I look forward to trying everyone’s cocktails and hearing about their inspiration.”

Mercado’s Golden Threads cocktail is inspired by the beginning of a New England autumn. “Clean, sharp, and elegant, one sip will introduce you to a world of flavors that honors the past and present. And that is what modern cocktails are all about,” Mercado says about her cocktail creation.

Check out Christina’s Instagram: @shakestirpour

Who Will Be Crowned National Champion?

To find out, join VinePair and Rémy Martin in NYC on Dec. 6, 2022. Together, they will host the National Finals and judge which SideCar riff will make it all the way to Cognac. If you’re an NYC local, RSVP here for the chance to attend! Check back on VinePair after the finale to find out who claimed the title.

This article is sponsored by Rémy Martin.