As the saying goes, “third time’s a charm.” When you add Cognac, well, it’s that even more charming.
On June 4, 2022, the Cognac Connection Challenge (CCC) returns for its third year, and there’s plenty of reason to be excited. Hosted by the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac, the CCC is a dynamic, multi-platform event dedicated to igniting creativity and discussion around one of the world’s most beloved eaux-de-vie, as well as the beautiful, tradition-steeped region it hails from. The focal point of the event is a Cognac-driven, easy-to-enter cocktail challenge with 10 winners, the top three of whom will actually travel to the Cognac appellation in France as part of their grand prize.
A Growing Cognac Community
Plenty of wine- and spirit-producing regions host events to garner interest, but the CCC is a cocktail and spirits event unlike any other. For one thing, the Bureau National Interprofessionel du Cognac has teamed up with Speed Rack — a female-driven speed bartending competition founded in 2011 to raise money for breast cancer charities that has since grown into a platform for innovative and inclusive mixology — demonstrating what bartending can do in terms of building community and fostering exceptional talent.
Not only are Speed Rack founders and industry veterans, Lynnette Marrero and Ivy Mix, on board for this year’s CCC, they see it as part of an expanding platform for Cognac knowledge and creative bartending in general. “We are definitely engaging a lot more bartenders from many more communities,” says Marrero. The event is attracting veteran talent, certainly, but it’s also bringing the culture of Cognac to a new generation of bartenders and industry professionals. “I think year three will bring more creative serves,” adds Marrero, “more entries from new bartenders who have just started bartending in the last year and a half, who are eager to get involved.”
Because the BNIC itself is made up of the lifeblood of the Cognac region — 4,260 winegrowers, 120 distillers, and 280 merchants of the appellation — everyone who participates in the Cognac Connection Challenge will get an authoritative, authentic deep dive into the product, its culture, mixing capabilities, and more.
In fact, beyond the cocktail competition itself, the Cognac Connection Challenge will feature a trade-only webinar in July hosted by Kellie Thorn, a certified Cognac educator. “She is a great teacher,” says Marrero. “It’s always fun to learn from her.” Bonus: Marrero hinted they’ll be revealing a “secret code” during the webinar that could win bartenders extra points when it comes to final judging.
There’ll also be weekly Instagram Live chats with Speed Rack, featuring the past years’ winners. “We’ll chat [about] inspiration, love of Cognac, and competition tips,” says Marrero. Anyone entering the cocktail contest should try to make the very first IG Live chat on June 1, since it will feature Marrero and Mix discussing the rules. They will also be available for questions.
Getting Creative with Cognac
If questions do come up, Marrero doubts they’ll be about what to do with Cognac. They’re already seeing more creativity, and more savvy, from bartenders working with it. “The innovation is clear in the submissions of the cocktails,” Marrero says. “Bartenders [are thinking] about the various aromas of Cognac, depending on age, on the brands, and create cocktails to complement and contrast.”
It seems the industry is getting the message that Cognac is more than a supple spirit to sip after dinner. Only produced in one of the six crus of the Cognac appellation, Cognac is made with specific low-sugar, high-acidity white grapes — typically Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard — and according to several highly specific strictures. Among them, it’s double-distilled in special Charentais copper pot stills and aged for a minimum of two years in French oak, with the first year typically in freshly toasted barrels, imparting a sumptuous baseline of flavor and color as well as the foundation of that rich mouthfeel that characterizes the eau-de-vie as it continues to age and refine. Cognac is also, and perhaps above all, a product of masterful blending, and more often than not aged well beyond the minimum two years, resulting in the delicious alphabet soup of Cognac varieties we’re coming to know and love in the U.S.
Of course, the truth is we already love Cognac in the U.S. One of France’s top exports, Cognac is sold in almost 160 markets and the U.S. is the No. 1 consumer in that thirsty group (i.e., we drink the most Cognac in the world). What the CCC is progressively changing isn’t that we love Cognac, but how we love Cognac — what styles of Cognac we love, what we know about it, and how we incorporate it into our menus, our bar programs, and our lives.
A Rewarding Future
With the contest now in its third year, Marrero sees Cognac coming into its full potential as a dynamic product. “Cognac is a beautiful brown spirit with so many variations and expressions,” she explains. “The liquid can change so much depending on the style of the maker, so that is exciting to see — the craft of each house. Some are more vegetal, some more floral, some more spicy.” Effectively it’s a win-win situation: The more Cognac bartenders are introduced to different distillers and/or different styles, the more mixing potential they’ll find.
And then, of course, there’s the whole (very appealing) idea of winning. Winning the CCC doesn’t just earn bragging rights. Ten winners of the CCC will receive $1,000 each, and the top three winners will actually travel to the appellation on a guided tour. “Winners will meet with growers, distillers, houses large and small to expand their knowledge about the whole process from vine to bottle and explore the origins and homeland of this wonderful spirit,” says Marrero. Immersion learning never sounded so good.
If you need any more excuse to try your hand at Cognac cocktails this year, how about a holiday? The CCC actually launches on America’s National Cognac Day, June 4, which, yes, is a thing, and it’s also an excellent excuse to delve into the underexplored world of a spirit we’ve mostly relegated to sipping on its own. After all, we love Cognac more than any other country in the world. Now it’s time to take that relationship to the next level.
The Third Annual Cognac Connection Challenge launches on June 4, 2022 and lasts until Aug. 5. More information can be found here.
This article is sponsored by Cognac.