For the U.S. Rémy Martin Sidecar competition semi-finalists, Dec. 6, 2022, marked a momentous occasion. In partnership with VinePair, the finalists gathered at FREEHOLD in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to shake or stir their Sidecar riffs for a panel of judges and the chance to win a trip to Cognac, France, to compete in the final round of the international competition.
Spirits were high as each bartender — Adam Fournier, Christina Mercado, Dani Sanders, Gaby Holzer, George Kaiho, and Marco Pastanella — crafted their unique cocktails for guests. The Sidecars were inspired by one of three distinct time periods: the Golden Age, the Disco Era, and the Modern Era. From a Julia Child recipe to the “rum runners” in Prohibition-era New Orleans, the inspiration for each riff was distinctive and representative of each bartender’s philosophy and background.
But it takes more than a great drink to win a cocktail competition. In addition to designing a cocktail that tells a story, the bartenders were challenged with cultivating an incredible experience for the three judges, emphasizing the choices behind their Sidecar riffs.
“I was very excited to be a part of it all and be able to execute something that had such a profound impact on my life and career,” says Karen Grill, a competition judge, director of Rémy Cointreau’s Brand Ambassador program Collectif 1806, and former U.S. champion of the cocktail competition. “The bartenders who enter this competition are some of the best, and I was excited to see what they created.”
Grill, alongside Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair, and Joaquín Símo, world-renowned bartender and an integral part of NYC’s spirits scene, were tasked with selecting not only the best Sidecar but the best experience overall.
“Judging cocktail competitions is always tough because it’s about so much more than the drink,” Teeter says. “How is the interaction with the bartender? How clean do they work? Is the drink a great showcase for the star spirit, in this case, Rémy Martin 1738?”
With nearly two decades of industry knowledge, Símo is an expert on what a Sidecar should be. “A Sidecar is a beautifully fruity and spicy cocktail,” he says. “There’s a lot to be celebrated and a really great Sidecar takes you on a narrative arc through those flavors so you’re not tasting the same flavor the whole way through.”
One Sidecar stood out from the rest, though, thanks to the bartender’s depth of knowledge, hospitality, and meticulous appreciation of Rémy Martin 1738. It told a story, from the first sip to the very last.
Inspired by New Orleans’ jazz age, Marco Pastanella’s “Streetcar” riff transported imbibers to 1920s-era NOLA.
“I challenged myself to make a stirred version of a Sidecar instead of the classic shaken version, both to bring something different to the competition and to connect it to other popular cocktails of the era,” Pastanella says of his winning cocktail. “Rémy Martin 1738 is the backbone of the cocktail, much like it was the backbone of New Orleans classic cocktails during the Golden Age.” In addition to Rémy Martin 1738, the Streetcar featured Lillet Blanc, Mount Gay Rum XO, lemon oleo-saccharum, absinthe, and bitters.
“One of the most famous sours in the world and you’re gonna stir it? That takes a lot of chutzpah,” Símo says. “But there was an elegance and simplicity to Marco’s drink. Lillet Blanc, you wouldn’t think that needs more orange but the bitterness of the peel and the freshness really amped up the intensity, making it beautifully aromatic and strong. It was such an enormously sophisticated take on the Sidecar.”
Though the decision to stir his Streetcar was certainly memorable, it was Pastanella’s thorough reasoning for his riff that truly impressed the judges. “When you’re talking about a national final, you’re walking in and expecting poise, polish, and perfectly made cocktails. You want everything to flow. You want to hear about the brand, the history, and the tasting notes. You want all that to be seamlessly integrated so you don’t even notice it’s happening. That refinement really matters — and Marco nailed it,” adds Símo.
“The most challenging part of the competition was to make sure people understood the story behind my drink and finding a way to transport everyone to Golden Age-era New Orleans,” Pastanella says. “I prepared for this by making sure my drink was era-appropriate and by focusing on making my presentation to the judges a fun, immersive experience.”
Needless to say, that preparation paid off. Now, Pastanella must prepare for the world finals in Cognac, France. For other bartenders considering entering a cocktail competition, Pastanella has this to say: “Put yourself out there and try! We never feel ready to compete but there is never a ‘right time.’ Plus, trying doesn’t cost anything. It’s a learning opportunity and you never know how it will turn out.”
For Pastanella, it’s safe to say that it’s turned out pretty well.
This article is sponsored by Rémy Martin.