Decoding the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge

Paul Pacult's Ultimate Cocktail Challenge, is unique in scope and ambitious in design, judge spirits by how well they please a panel of bartenders and spirit experts. But what's the take-away for the average bartender? Does judging cocktails with the same standards as those used in wine and spirit competitions make sense? Let's see what the maestro Paul Pacult has to say:

Mix: You've just wrapped up the third Ultimate Cocktail Challenge - what are a couple of key things you've learned from this unique competition?

Paul Pacult: I've learned that the only way to successfully carry this endeavor off is to hire the finest back-of-house staff, like Leo DeGroff and Sean Kenyon, both professional bartenders par excellence; hire the most meticulous and experienced bartenders for the judging panels, in this case, Dan Nicolaescu, Katie Stipe, Brent Lamberti and Eryn Reece; and last, procure the services of the most elite cocktail experts, authors, consultants and bar owners in the business to serve as objective arbiters of the entries. This is by far the most difficult of the three Challenges and the only way of make it viable is to assemble the greatest authorities of our generation. The other thing I keep learning is how truly wonderful classic cocktails are due mainly to their simplicity and minimalism. There's a clear reason why 25/26 cocktails have endured over time and have become the foundation of the entire modern cocktail era.

Mix: Let me play devil's advocate a bit - with cocktail decisions and tastes so personal, how can anyone take away useful information from the results?

Pacult: The results are the findings of the best mixologists in the world, so that alone carries a lot of weight and reliability for consumers. Hey, I've wanted to know for twenty years what Dale DeGroff likes to drink and why. I'm lucky because I spend lots of time with him but for average drinkers it's valuable to know how he views different drinks and rates spirits in them. Same goes for David Wondrich and Steve Olson and Jacques Bezuidenhout and Eric Alperin and Julie Reiner and Tad Carducci and the other all-star UCC judges. It's like being taught physics by Albert Einstein.

Mix: Similarly, most spirit brand marketers want to be known as adaptable for the maximum number of occasions - how can being named, say, the best vodka of a vodka Martini help when most vodka is consumed with juice or tonic?

 Pacult: Because vodka is making a big comeback and one of the drinks that's been getting lots of calls again is the vodka Martini. UCC is so valuable because we move and evolve with the time, making the most of the time we live in. Besides, with vodka being the most versatile of cocktail bases, consumers should view all the results from the vodka category and choose their favorite. That's why we do three cocktails per classic category.

Mix: Make the case why a spirit brand should enter this or any other competition, given the number of competitions today.

Pacult: I can only make the case for UCC and for me it all goes back to credibility. Look at who we have making the drinks and judging the drinks and that should give any thinking imbiber reason enough to look to UCC as a source of unassailable information that can guide them to better buying decisions. It's all about degree of expertise and truthfulness.

Mix: What does tasting so many cocktails over a short period of time tell you about the mixability of the current crop of spirits in general?

Pacult: I think that we're living in the new Golden Age of the Cocktail and that's primarily due to two reasons: One, the high quality of distillates that are used as foundational ingredients and, two, the unprecedented level of expertise by top tier bartenders who understand the magic of balance and harmony in mixed drinks. Spirits have never been better than they are now and as we all know quality ingredients make quality cocktails when done with subtlety and restraint. All categories of spirits are currently making great cocktails.

Mix: Did the performance of any spirit or category in the competition this year surprise?

Pacult: Scotch whisky keeps astounding me and the judges with its mixability. In fact, a couple of my favorite classics were the Rob Roy and the Rusty Nail. Scotch isn't just for sipping anymore. It's going to be the next big spirit for cocktails over the next three to five years.

Mix: What's your favorite drink right now?

Pacult: A Classic Daiquiri.

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