Last week, six talented bartenders battled it out at the UK final of Courvoisier’s The Toast of Paris Cocktail Competition, an overcast London morning muted out by the gilded art-deco splendour of Artesian Bar at The Langham.
The eighth iteration of the competition saw Frenchman Paul Lougrat take the crown for the UK and the chance to take part in the international final, held in Paris later this month. The stellar panel of judges, made up of Courvoisier ambassador Rebecca Asseline, Cocktail Lovers’ Sandrae Lawrence and cocktail historian Anastatia Miller, praised his cocktails for being ‘perfectly balanced and beautifully presented’.
In the first round, competitors were tasked with creating a twist on the Café Courvoisier, an Espresso Martini inspired by the Parisian café culture. The coffee and Courvoisier pairing is a familiar one for Lougrat, who works at High Water in Dalston.
‘After a night out, I have this tradition with my mates of having a coffee and a cognac, and it's quite a punch,’ he said. ‘I started with this and wondered how I could make it more palatable as it can be a little sharp.’
He added a little honey to mellow the bitterness of the coffee, Islay whisky for a slight saltiness and smokiness and a mint liqueur, which gave it an unexpected freshness and complemented the jasmine notes in the Courvoisier VSOP. The drink was paired with a homemade ice cream, made with whisky, citrus and peach, and a side serving of very delicate fleur de sel.
FLEUR DE CAFÉ
Glass: Old Fashioned
40ml Courvoisier VSOP
20ml coffee syrup
7.5ml Laphroaig whisky
2 dashes of Branca Menta
‘I didn’t want to put the salt in the drink because it plays really strongly with the flavours,’ said Lougrat, ‘but you can just try a pinch and see how it pushes the flavours – some appear, some disappear – just play around a little bit.’
The judges thought the different components added a level of interest that would increase engagement with customers.
‘He really created a moment with those different elements, reminiscent of those very old brasseries in Paris where you might get a piece of chocolate or an almond biscuit [with your coffee],’ said Asseline.
‘The salt gives a particular mouthfeel to the ice cream, then you have the coldness of the ice cream and the velvety texture of the cocktail. If you had it with a group of people they would talk about it, instead of just drinking it.’
Lougrat’s second drink, Belle Époque, is his own take on a Sazerac, and was inspired by the celebratory feeling in Paris in 1889 with the Universal Exposition at the Eiffel Tower. It combines the VSOP with ingredients available in that era: amontillado sherry, vermouth di Torino, agricole rhum, fig liqueur, a dash of walnut bitters, and a lemon discard. To accompany it, he created a lollipop with a dehydrated fig in a sherry caramel.
‘I used the rich, slightly sweet vermouth to add structure to the drink and the fig liqueur for texture, and these carry the flavours from the front of the palate to the back,’ said Lougrat.
‘At Courvoisier they leave some grape in the still during the distillation and it gives a lot of flavours and background to the cognac, so I wanted to find something that'd do that in my cocktail and I went for the walnut bitter.’
Glass: Brasserie wine glass
50ml Courvoisier VSOP
8ml créme de figue
5ml rhum blanc agricole
5ml Vermouth Di Torino
5ml amontillado sherry
dash of walnut bitters
The judges commended his precision in balancing such bold flavours, with Asseline saying he reminded her of a chef who understands how flavours and textures work together.
‘If he didn't have the right specs for the vermouth and the liqueurs, it could have gone really wrong and ended up being really sweet,' said Asseline. 'We were really impressed because those are really powerful ingredients and very aromatic, but we still got the VSOP through them all and that shows real skill as a bartender.
‘Also, as cognac ages you end up with natural sherry and port wine notes, so it was very clever to use flavours that happen naturally during the cognac maturation.’
Beyond the perfect serve
This year, competitors were judged on an additional criterion in recognition of the role of the modern bartender in providing an experience for cocktail drinkers beyond the serve. Drinks were considered on the basis of their ‘Instagrammability’ (that’s now a word).
Lougrat forewent fancy garnishes and went for a classic approach, borrowing (after much persuasion) an old, brasserie wine glass of his grandmother’s for his Belle Époque cocktail, which he served on a gold tray on a burgundy cut out to echo the colour of the cognac. The Fleur de Café was served in an Old Fashioned glass with the ice cream, fleur de sel, and coffee leaves on a rustic oak tray varnished with coffee, (so if by chance you were to give it a sniff, you’d get roasted coffee aromas).
‘Paul went for very simple, but elegant shapes and colours, and for the Belle Époque he got the glassware perfectly aligned with the era,’ said Asseline. ‘It’s easy on the eye, and shines without being overly bling.’
Lougrat will compete against the winners from Germany, France, Italy and Austria at the international final of The Toast of Paris Cocktail Competition later this month. The overall winner will receive a bespoke blend of Courvoisier, crafted by Patrice Pinet, and $4,000 towards their future career development.
The other UK finalists were Hadrien Haumont of Dirty Bones, London; Nathaniel Hampton of Draffens of Dundee, Edinburgh; Michael McLellan of Bryant & Mack, Edinburgh; Clare Morrow of The Domino Club, Leeds; Daniel Winters of Milk Thistle, Bristol, and Mike Canham of The Rummer, Bristol.
Photography by Tim Winters.