Meet the Winners of the Cognac Connection Challenge

In August, the Cognac Connection Challenge, an initiative of the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), put out a call for bartenders across the country to create signature drinks that would showcase why Cognac makes the perfect cocktail base. Co-sponsored by Speed Rack co-founders Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix and VinePair, judges chose just 10 winners from more than 120 talented entries.

The rules of the game were as such, each entry had to: feature Cognac as the primary ingredient and only base spirit; not include more than six ingredients; contain standard ingredients and, of course, have a great name. Judging criteria included taste, aroma, and balance — the key ingredients in any cocktail. That includes points for appearance, originality and creativity, and technique. Judges included Marrero, Mix, VinePair staff writer Tim McKirdy, and Kellie Thorn, beverage director of Hugh Acheson Restaurants and certified Cognac educator.

Below you’ll find the 10 winners who rose to the top of the pack, as well the original cocktails they created for the competition. These Cognac-slinging champs each took home a $1,000 scholarship award and are invited on a virtual visit to the Cognac region of France with a local expert since traveling in person is not currently an option.

Jessica Pomerantz – Bangkok Collins

With a decade of bartending experience under her belt, Jessica Pomerantz impressed the judges with her Bangkok Collins, a mix of Cognac VSOP, blueberry-lemongrass shrub, Thai tea syrup, and lemon.

“I chose to use VSOP because of the way its flavors of dried fruits and spices, particularly notes of anise, shine through the sweetness of the Thai tea and the fresh tartness of the blueberry shrub,” says Pomerantz.

Aside from making a killer Cognac cocktail, Pomerantz, who now lives in South Carolina where she studies clinical community psychology and bartends at Black Rooster, has also donated her time to OutSmart NYC, an organization dedicated to preventing and ending sexual violence in bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.

Jesse Cyr – Solace of the Sun

No stranger to the cocktail competition scene, Seattle beverage consultant Jesse Cyr cut his teeth at Rob Roy, which World’s Best Bars lauds for its classic cocktails and stylish atmosphere. He’s now behind the bar at L’Oursin, which was nominated for a James Beard Award.

Cyr’s entry, Solace of the Sun, is a twist on the classic French 75. “I love that Cognac and Champagne are both elegant and highly regarded,” he says. Opting to use a Cognac VS for its “bright, fresh flavors,” he also calls on white port and floral green tea syrup.

Britt Ingalls – A Stone’s Throw

Britt Ingalls describes herself as, “a queer woman with a winding career path and a penchant for inhabiting traditionally male positions” who got a start in bartending in 2014. Today she’s behind the bar at Washington, D.C.’s Silver Lyan.

Ingalls’ drinks are as interesting as the jobs she’s held (ski boot fitter, nature preserve land manager, pest control sales associate, wilderness medicine instructor), which is what landed A Stone’s Throw on this list.

“I am always inspired by the range of skills required for master blenders to turn grapes into their respective terroir-laden Cognacs,” says Ingalls. “It’s basically equal parts skill, science, and magic.”

For this Martinez-inspired drink she chose to use a Cognac VSOP. “I wanted a spirit profile that was robust enough to anchor a stirred drink, as well as nuanced enough to play along with stone fruit-infused vermouth,” she says.

Meghann Allred – Summer Thyme (And the Livin’ Is Easy)

Whereas Cognac so often winds up in fall time drinks, it’s Meghann Allred’s Summer Thyme cocktail, made with grilled peach–infused Cognac VS, that caught the judges’ eyes.

Allred, bartender at Left Bank in York, Pa., says she was curious about the lighter VS expressions, which are aged for a minimum of two years. “I tried warming the glass … and I caught hints of peaches and black pepper. It was lighter in body but still full of flavor and aroma. From there, a summery drink was the way to go for me!” Allred says.

With a grilled peach infusion that can be made ahead and stored for later, this is one drink we’ll be pining for year-round.

Chelsea DeMark – Smells Like Good Luck

In 2012, Chelsea DeMark left the corporate world behind for a higher calling: bartending. She prides herself on applying culinary technique to cocktails and found herself in the spotlight after winning the mid-Atlantic regional Speed Rack competition, and finishing in the top 8 at the national competition. Nowadays you can find her at Quill, in the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, D.C., which was awarded a spot on USA Today’s Best Hotel Bars list in 2019

Cognac VSOP with chamomile tea, nasturtium syrup, and apple cider vinegar. “I find that a VSOP frequently retains youthful floral notes, while harnessing the beginnings of deep fruit and warm earthy spice notes that come with older spirits,” she says.

On devising her Smells Like Good Luck cocktail, Denmark says, “I wanted to capture that dynamic and versatile terrestrial palate of the dram in a libation that was simultaneously refreshing and sophisticated.” To achieve this, she concocted an ethereally violet-colored purple shamrock-nasturtium syrup and combined it with VSOP, chamomile tea, and a little apple cider vinegar.

Anna Giordano – Snake in the Grass

Since she was young, Anna Giordano has loved being in the garden, picking flowers, and harvesting fruits and vegetables. She says it’s what led to her love of flavor pairing.

After moving to New Orleans and setting up shop at Meauxbar, Giordano started participating in — and winning — local and regional cocktail competitions. She’s currently the bar director at Longway Tavern in the French Quarter.

She calls her Snake in the Grass cocktail “an exotic and savory take on the classic French 75.” The drink is centered around Cognac VSOP Grande Champagne. “I love this Cognac so much because the eau de vie has retained its soft tropical fruit notes,” she says. “Yes, there is some vanilla and caramel from barrel age but the most exciting parts of the nose are guava and lychee.” She plays up these notes with fermented guava syrup, fresh white grapefruit juice, and pét-nat from Sicily.

Mara Bethel – City Limits

Mara Bethel is part-bartender and “all-around beverage enthusiast,” and part artist and activist. Bethel, who worked at Kimball House in Georgia, has spent time focusing on the nuances of Cognac, and it shows in her City Limits creation.

Here, Bethel blends together a Cognac XO, which she chose because of its structure and fruit-forwardness, with muscadine-infused Dolin dry vermouth, apricot eau de vie, Salers aperitif, muscadine syrup, and bitters. “I wanted to showcase the fruit components in the Cognac, as well as its elegance and roundness,” says Bethel.

Jena Ellenwood – Still Life with Fruit

Jena Ellenwood is an award-winning bartender, cocktail educator, writer, and performer based in Astoria, N.Y. You can find her work on the menu at the revered Dear Irving in New York City. She also teaches mixology classes and creates custom cocktails for weddings and other events.

A trip to Cognac last November may have given her a leg up on this competition: “On the train [from Bordeaux], I ate the best pear I have ever tasted in my life. I based my recipe off that pear,” says Ellenwood.

Her drink, called Still Life With Fruit, is based around Cognac VS. “I chose a bright, slightly salty VS that really highlighted the fruit I wanted to celebrate,” Ellenwood notes. “It also did not pick up too much depth from the barrel, so it’s perfect for something refreshing and light.”

The cocktail features the Cognac VS, pear-infused Pineau de Charentes, and fleur de sel. As Jena explains, “I chose to use the verjus & Pineau to really celebrate the region — when I was in Cognac I tried the Pineau from Guillon Paiturand and it was amazing, I wanted to pay homage to that and really use as many grapes as possible! I chose to use fruit native to Cognac, which is why I went for the acidity of verjus rather than a citrus fruit.”

Lauren Paylor – I’ll Be Seeing You

Formerly the lead bartender of Eat The Rich, Southern Efficiency, and Mockingbird Hill in Washington, D.C., this Bronx native has impressive cocktail skills to match her equally impressive resume.

Now the brand ambassador for Seedlip, Paylor once trained under the one and only Ryan Chetiyawardana, a.k.a. Mr. Lyan or Silver Lyan (Lyan was name U.K. bartender of the year by Diageo Reserve World Class, among a laundry list of other awards).

Paylor is also the co-founder and owner of Focus On Health, an organization that works to encourage hospitality professionals to take care of themselves for a change — physically, mentally and otherwise. The initiative “provides hospitality professionals with the tools and resources to better their lives through health and wellness education, programming, and outreach,” Paylor says.

When not traveling the world to consult on cocktail programs, Paylor is busy holding down her title as a nationally ranked bartender and finalist in the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) 2019 U.S. World Class competition.

For this competition, Paylor’s I’ll Be Seeing You reflects her competitive edge and depth of knowledge when it comes to Cognac: a Cognac Napoléon, yuzu marmalade, lemon, coffee bitters, and coconut aminos, a combination Paylor calls “decadent and unique.”

“The versatility of Cognac displays that there are not limitations but endless options when placing it in cocktails,” said Paylor.

Lance Bowman – Elegance of the Sea

A rookie Lance Bowman is not. In fact, Bowman has nearly two decades of experience in the hospitality and bar industry.

Bowman was part of the Japp’s Since 1879 crew in Cincinnati that garnered a spot on Esquire’s “Best Bars in America” list under his stewardship in 2016. From there, he headed north to Chicago where he worked behind the bars at Yusho, Billy Sunday, Old Irving Brewing Company, and Lucky Dorr.

Bowman’s experience prepped him well for the competition circuit: He is a Patron Perfectionists finalist, was named a Top 50 Bartenders in Diageo World Class U.S., and has made multiple appearances in the Woodford Manhattan Experience. He is busy working on his own concept bar space in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood that will showcase his take on environmentally friendly and sustainable cocktails.

His Élégance de la Mer (Elegance of the Sea) reflects his expertise and understanding of the intricate terroirs in Cognac.

“I chose to use a Cognac from the Bois Ordinaire cru, more specifically one from Ile d’Oleron which has sandy soils and a coastal climate that imparts a unique mineral and saline character not found in Cognacs from the other five crus,” says Bowman.

His ode to the region’s “sandy, sea-air-swept vineyards” with genmaicha syrup and salted nori makes for a fun and esoteric drink.

This article is sponsored by Cognac.