Pacult Explains Ultimate Cocktail Challenge

This year, spirits expert F. Paul Pacult launched a trio of events known collectively as the Ultimate Beverage Challenge. While there are other wine and spirits competitions, one aspect of his three-part competition is especially intriguing to bartenders: the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge. This is the first major competition designed to judge which specific brand of spirits work best in different cocktails. Such a process conjures up many questions, so let’s allow Pacult to explain how this will work.

NCB Mix: Why the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge?
F. Paul PacultPaul Pacult: Good first question, but in my mind I have to ask it as, "Why hasn't Ultimate Cocktail Challenge been done?" Or better, "What makes UCC unique?" What makes UCC stand far apart from every other cocktail competition in the world is its premise. While all other cocktail contests either pit one bartender's recipe against another's or request entrants create a new cocktail for the sole purpose of promoting a spirits brand, Ultimate Cocktail Challenge ascertains which spirits make the best cocktails that fit that category. That's what is so revolutionary about Ultimate Cocktail Challenge. This has never been done.

At Ultimate Cocktail Challenge, highly qualified panels of judges, from world-class experts like Dale DeGroff, Jim Meehan, David Wondrich, Audrey Saunders, Julie Reiner and Jacques Bezuidenhout, to name just six, will judge which entered gins make the finest Gin & Tonics and Aviations and Dry Martinis and Negronis. And which vodkas react best in Cosmopolitans, Bloody Marys and Vodka Martinis. And which Cognacs make the tastiest Sidecars, Stingers and Ritz Cocktails. We're even going to find out which Champagnes and sparkling wines make the best Bellinis and Champagne Cocktails.

As the UCC assistant chairman of judging Sean Ludford says, "It's the context of Ultimate Cocktail Challenge that makes it unique." It's also why, potentially, Ultimate Cocktail Challenge is a spirits marketer’s dream come true. My partner David Talbot asks the question, "Can you imagine what it would be like having your brand of gin named as the Best Gin in a Dry Martini by the most prestigious cocktail experts in the world?"

"It would be a bloody PR bonanza," is the answer.

NCB Mix:
Are your judges drawn specifically from the cocktail world, or are you including food, wine and spirit experts?

Pacult: I've personally chosen the who's who of mixed drinks to be the core judges of Ultimate Cocktail Challenge. They are the ranking foremost authorities of cocktail of our generation: Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich, Steve Olson, Jim Meehan, Jacques Bezuidenhout, Julie Reiner, Audrey Saunders, Don Lee, Doug Frost, Andy Seymour, Tad Carducci and more. You couldn't assemble a more qualified group if you tried.

NCB Mix: Spirit and wine competitions are fairly predictable in format — how will the cocktail competition work?

Pacult: Each spirits entry competes directly against its category peers (gin against gin, vodka against vodka, tequila against tequila and so on) in cocktails chosen by DeGroff, Wondrich and me. The tasting is done blind, meaning that the judges do not know what spirits are being tested. The cocktails are mixed by top professional bartenders, like Willy Shine, Aisha Sharpe, Lindsay Nader and Sean Hoard, in front of the judges so the cocktails are guaranteed to be fresh. The judges score them on the 100-point rating system. The top three from each flight move on to the next round, where they are tasted again in the semifinals to determine the winner. That winner is deemed the best in its category for that particular cocktail and awarded the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge Chairman's Trophy. Only one Chairman's Trophy is given per cocktail.

Because environment is vital, Ultimate Cocktail Challenge is conducted at the state-of-the-art facility in New York City, the Astor Center.

NCB Mix: All tasting competitions are fairly subjective, but cocktail preferences are especially so — you may like your Martini with a spritz of vermouth, while I might prefer a 4:1 gin-vermouth mix. How do you handle recipe differences?

Pacult: Your point is well taken. The precise reason Dale, David and I consulted as a group about which cocktails to include per category is that we wanted to make certain each category was properly represented by classic and contemporary cocktails, so each spirit entry would have the opportunity to show its best side in several cocktails, not just one. The recipes as listed on the UBC web site ( provide ideal arenas in which the spirits get to display their virtues.

We're not so concerned at Ultimate Cocktail Challenge about whether a Martini gets an olive or a twist. Our overriding concern has everything to do with showcasing each spirit’s best character and then judging them against their direct equals in specific cocktails.

NCB Mix: The way I read the rules, a brand might be awarded the "Best Manhattan Whiskey" but not "Best Old-Fashioned Whiskey." Is that correct?

Pacult: You read the rules correctly. One gin, for instance, may walk away with the Ultimate Cocktail Challenge Chairman's Trophy for Best Gin in Aviation while it might not win for Best Gin in Dry Martini, so the possibilities multiply for the entrants since there are multiple cocktails per category. Of course, it's completely possible that one brand might win two or even three or even five Chairman's Trophies in its category. There's nothing to prevent that. And since all the judging will be done on a blind basis, judges will be scoring solely on what their senses tell them, not what brand it is because they won't know which brands they'll be testing. That's the inherent beauty of Ultimate Cocktail Challenge: complete integrity through purity of method. It's the uncompromising credibility of Ultimate Cocktail Challenge that breeds authenticity and authority in the winners of the Chairman's Trophies. Ultimate Cocktail Challenge results have meaning because we insist on integrity, method and credibility at every turn.

NCB Mix: Modifiers like vermouths, liqueurs and bitters are increasingly being made or altered by bartenders to their own preference. How are you selecting those ingredients for the competition?

Pacult: We are using modifiers that are renowned and widely viewed as being the best of their kind by experts, such as Noilly Prat Dry Vermouth, Martini & Rossi Sweet Vermouth, Angostura Bitters, Peychaud's Bitters and the like. At Ultimate Cocktail Challenge we only use fresh juices and leafy garnishes. That's the only way we know how to do things when it comes to mixology.

NCB Mix: Do you have any concerns about palate fatigue? So many cocktails have very high acid components, which can tire tasters out.

Pacult: To safeguard against palate fatigue, we make certain that judging panels sample only a limited number of cocktails per flight and that they have ample time in between flights to rest and have something to eat. That's why we spread Ultimate Cocktail Challenge out over three days. Only fresh, alert palates can make critical decisions that will possibly have strong impact on the future success of a spirit brand.

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