Usually, it’s the fat lady singing that indicates when the game is up. At the global final of Courvoisier’s The Toast of Paris it was a fish – more specifically, a fish singing Gloria Gaynor’s classic ‘I will survive’ – that marked the completion of Ferenc Haraszti’s winning cocktail Riverside.
Held in The Purple Bar at Hotel de Collectionneur in Paris last week, the global final of the prestigious competition saw talented bartenders battle it out – cognac bottles at the ready – for The Toast of Paris crown.
The five competitors, who’d already triumphed in their respective national finals, had 15 minutes to present a twist on a coffee-based cocktail featuring Courvoisier and a cognac-centred, modern expression of a classic cocktail. The judging panel was made up of Courvoisier global brand ambassador Rebecca Asseline, Courvoisier master blender Patrice Pinet and he of the perfect Martini, celebrated bartender Salvatore Calabrese.
Calabrese explained to Imbibe the particular challenge of creating cocktails with cognac.
‘It is such a refined spirit that it can be easily hidden, so it’s difficult for bartenders to work with and they have to be very clever how they mix it,’ he said. ‘The cocktail needs to be complex, well balanced, and the Courvoisier needs to be the ultimate encounter on the aftertaste.’
Garnish: Lemon zest, sesame cracker
Method: Roughly coat side of glass with coffee chaff, combine base ingredients, shake, strain over ice, top up with cascara and cranberry soda. Garnish with lemon zest and sesame cracker on cocktail stick.
30ml Courvoisier VSOP
20ml lemon juice
10ml sugar syrup
2 dashes of Peychaud’s Bitters
Cascara and cranberry soda to top
Hungarian Ferenc Haraszti, who moved to Vienna to open cocktail bar Mr Mendez, took inspiration from the innovative spirit of Courvoisier and the new-wave coffee movement for his first cocktail. He ditched the standard espresso, instead incorporating cascara (the dried flesh that envelops the bean) and chaff (the bean husk) in his recipe.
‘I like using ingredients that are usually discarded as, in this way, I’m giving them a second chance and that’s where the name of the cocktail Think Twice comes from,’ he said. ‘When you create a tea with the cascara, it’s super fruity with herbal notes, which makes it really interesting paired with the VSOP.’
Haraszti combined Couvoisier VSOP, lemon juice, sugar syrup and Peychaud’s Bitters as the base ingredients, topping them up with a soda he created with cranberry juice and cascara tea. He garnished the drink with lemon zest and a sesame cracker, which had a slightly burnt aroma, reminiscent of a coffee roastery.
‘I liked that he thought about using coffee in a different way,’ said Calabrese. ‘He crusted the glass in the coffee chaff, which brought you the aromas.’
Down by the river
Glass: Japanese ceramic cup
Garnish: Lemon zest, bamboo leaf, purple sweet potato
Method: Shake all five ingredients and double strain into the cup, add a piece of ice block and garnish.
30ml Courvoisier VSOP
30ml Saké Junmai Ginjo
10ml dry apricot brandy
15ml lemon Juice
10ml sugar syrup
It was Haraszti’s other cocktail Riverside – a twist on the classic Fish House Punch - that had the judges in raptures. It celebrates the times Haraszti’s father, who was a soldier, would return home and take him fishing, carving out some of his best childhood memories. It also nods to the importance of the rivers in Paris and Jarnac for transporting Courvoiser's product in the early days.
‘The biggest challenge working with Courvoisier is that it’s an aged spirit, so I have to respect the years that are put into each bottle and those attributes and layers need to be present in my drink,’ he said.
‘It’s a complex liquid – there’s the barrel, the tannins, the fruity notes, then the eau de vie and everyone’s work in creating it – so it’s almost a cocktail itself.’
Instead of the rum used in the Fish House Punch, Haraszti used a sake for its low abv and delicate flavours to let the Courvoisier shine through the final flavour profile. He then added a small amount of unaged, dry apricot brandy to complement the apricot notes in the cognac.
‘You also get the slight flavour of the fermented rice [in the saké], which pairs brilliantly with the tannins from the cognac ageing process,’ says Haraszti. ‘The umami of the fermented rice is also super interesting.’
These core ingredients are finished off with lemon and sugar syrup, which Haraszti said he describes to his younger colleagues as the ‘salt and pepper’ of cocktails. ‘It’s the acid, sour and sweet together, they make the base that gives a rounded mouthfeel,’ he explained.
Calabrese declared the cocktail to have perfect balance – no small words from the Maestro himself.
‘It was the most perfect cocktail combination – we all thought that,’ says Calabrese. ‘It was earthy and fresh, well balanced and the fragrance was incredible, with a hint of saltiness.’
Whether Haraszti’s cocktail won because of his singing fish – or possibly in spite of it – all the judges agreed Riverbank was an excellent cocktail.
An honorable mention was given to UK representative Paul Lougrat of London's High Water, who was just pipped to the post by Haraszti.
Toasting the winner
After the competition, the finalists travelled south to Jarnac, south-west France, to spend the night at Château Courvoisier, where they enjoyed a gala dinner and tour of the historic Paradis cellar, a treasure trove of cognacs dating back as far as 1789.
As part of his prize, Haraszti was allowed to select a bespoke cognac, crafted by Pinet. The Petite Champagne blend he chose, part of which was from the turn of the last century, was then presented to him in an engraved crystal decanter. He also received a game show-sized giant cheque for $4,000 towards his future career development.
Photography © Dan Rubin