The Cognac Connection Cocktail Challenge is a virtual cocktail competition initiative put on by the Bureau National Interprofessionnel du Cognac (BNIC), VinePair, and Speed Rack co-founders Lynette Marrero and Ivy Mix that searches for the 10 best signature Cognac cocktail recipes created by bartenders across the United States.
Through a series of IG Lives with past winners, virtual tastings, educational webinars, and tips from Cognac educators, the Cognac Connection Challenge kept the bartender community engaged and connected.
The goal? Craft a creative cocktail that shows off Cognac’s brand range of flavors, textures, and aromatics. Here are the 10 winners from this year’s competition. Check out our EBooklet here, which has their full signature cocktail recipes so you can try your hand at whipping them up at home!
ABIGAIL GULLO – MOUNTAINS TO SEA
With over a decade of bartending experience in drool-worthy destinations from New Orleans to New York City, Athens to Rome, and Puerto Rico to (currently) Seattle, Abigail Gullo is no stranger to concocting delicious drinks. In fact, she’s been the master mixer behind several award-winning drinks in bars around the world as well as the proud recipient of Bartender of the Year many times over. However, her expertise isn’t just celebrated behind the bar, she’s also created libations for the “Today” show and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
Gullo says she chose to use a VSOP-style Cognac in her Mountains to Sea cocktail to give the drink a “rich backbone that will bounce off the coconut and linger with the more herbal notes and nutty quality of the sherry.”
BAYLEE HOPING – CARIBBEAN DREAM
Baylee Hoping has previously been found behind the bar in a variety of settings, from a Korean family restaurant to fine dining hotspots in Midtown Manhattan like Hugh Acheson’s Empire State South. She is currently the lead bartender at Bon Ton in Atlanta.
For the Cognac Connection, Hoping wanted to create a tropical Cognac sipper that would transport imbibers to the islands. Using VSOP gives this cocktail “deeper, riper notes you get in an older Cognac opposed to the fresh, delicate notes of a younger spirit,” Hoping explains. “I needed a bit of a rounder Cognac to stand up to the other ingredients.”
CARMIN GARRETT – DREAMS FOR FUTURE
Over the last five years, Carmin Garrett has served cocktails all around New Orleans. They love the creative aspect of bartending and have flexed their fair share of skill behind the bars whether it’s at a hotel, dive bar, in the French Quarter, or at a local neighborhood gem.
Garrett says they wanted to use a VS-style Cognac for their Dreams of the Future cocktail because of its ability to highlight the bright qualities of Cognac. “The infused honey and the chamomile grappa have very rich flavors,” they explain, “so I wanted to use a VS style to bring in some of the brighter citrus notes in a complementary way.”
CHRISTINE MERCADO – AUTUMN
Newport, R.I.’s Christine Mercado is an award-winning mixologist who holds an M.B.A. in hospitality and an A.S. and B.S. in culinary arts from Johnson & Wales University. Before becoming founder and mixologist for ShakeStirPour, Mercado was the beverage manager at The Vanderbilt, Auberge Resort Collection where she not only created unique recipes for the hotel and oversaw its wine and spirits menu but also helped to develop a regular cocktail class program for locals and hotel guests.
Mercado says she chose the VS category of Cognac for her winning entry in the Cognac Connection Cocktail Challenge “because I wanted a lighter profile of the Cognac, from the soft citrus to the light stone fruits and vanilla” for the sour-style cocktail.
GABRIEL NOBLE – BONNE SANTÉ
Currently behind the bar at Dante in Manhattan’s West Village, Gabriel Noble says his favorite part about bartending is “using fresh ingredients to bring out complex flavors that resemble a meal or dessert.”
For his cocktail, the Bonne Santé, Noble wanted to get as much of the Cognac’s grape notes as possible, while still keeping the nice fig and raisin notes to work together with his homemade fig purée. That’s why he chose the VS category of Cognac for his drink. “Too much age would have dominated all the other ingredients used in the cocktail,” he explains.
JACOB LESITSKY – BOULEVARDIER DE BRETAGNE
Jacob Lesitsky has spent a decade working with drinks in the Poconos area of Pennsylvania. He believes that his passion for being an at-home chef also works as a muse for the cocktails he creates.
In his 2021 winning Cognac Connection Cocktail Challenge entry, Boulevardier de Bretagne, Lesitsky used two types of Cognac, both in the VS category. “For my base spirits, I chose [a particular brand that had] intense notes of vanilla and brown sugar complementing the Bittermans Hiver Amer,” he says. “For my Beurre Noisette Cognac, it didn’t make sense to go with anything older than a VS Cognac as I’d be covering up the nuance flavors with brown butter.”
ORESTES CRUZ – JE NE T’AIME PLUS
Bartender and visual artist Orestes Cruz grew up between Mexico City and New Orleans, but now calls Atlanta home. He’s been working in the hospitality industry for eight years, and has attended BAR SMARTS, as well as several courses and workshops with top drink educators.
Cruz’s cocktail entry, his Je ne t’aime Plus, calls for a VS cognac for its vibrant and natural notes. “The Txakoli wine syrup plays well with the floral character in this VS Cognac,” he explains. “This canvas shines with the combination of cherry, ginger, and tamarind flavors, and enhances the pear and baked apple notes.”
SHANNON BRANDON – COMING UP ROSES
Shannon Brandon’s exploration into bartending began back in her hometown of Bloomington, Ind., where she graciously took advantage of the exceptional bar programs the city had to offer. In 2018, Brandon was admitted into the Tales of the Cocktail Apprenticeship Program and moved to New Orleans. Now, just three years later, she is a bartender at Jewel of the South under the direction of James Beard Award-winning bartender and Jewel of the South owner Chris Hannah.
In Coming Up Roses, Brandon uses a VS cognac since it’s a younger expression. Being a less mature cognac means the VS will maintain light tannins and give “the cocktail a smooth texture and very sippable quality,” she explains. “Additionally, I wanted to harken to the rose aroma that I found to stand out in the [particular brand I used], and thus infused the Zirbenz with dried roses.”
LAUREN PELLECCHIA – A STONE’S THROW
This year marked Lauren Pellecchia’s 11th year behind the bar. A self-taught bartender, Pellecchia knows how to take the initiative and has implemented a creative craft cocktail program in her beer-and-a-shot home bar.
Pellecchia’s affinity for fresh, local ingredients shines through in her Cognac Connection Cocktail Challenge entry, A Stone’s Throw, which calls for several fresh fruits. In order to create something “decadent, rich, and smooth,” she chose to use a VSOP-category Cognac, which possesses the mature fruit and spice notes she was looking to enhance within the cocktail. “A VS Cognac has a beautiful flavor profile, but I found many of the notes to be too sharp for the cocktail I was creating,” she says. “In a similar vein, an XO was oakier than I was wanting, and many of the delicately nuanced notes would be lost among the flavors of my cocktail.”
JONATHAN STANYARD – THE HARVEST
Veteran bartender Jonathan Stanyard started his career back in 1999 at a friend’s restaurant in California’s Bay Area, though he’s called Seattle home for the last seven years. From dimly lit jazz clubs to high-end French restaurants, Stanyard has immersed himself in all styles of service. In 2019, Stanyard started the Bitter Gringo Company, which specializes in cocktail education and bitters production.
With The Harvest, Stanyard wanted to “make a balanced cocktail with citrus and spice” and reached for a VSOP Cognac to get a little more depth and complexity than VS Cognacs. “The nose is soft oak, fruity, and floral, which leads to flavors of honey and caramel,” he says. “Each tasting note finds its way to marry with the complementary flavors of the cocktail build.”
This article is sponsored by Cognac.