There are plenty of cocktail competitions that challenge bartenders on their skills, but few that put to the test the flood of recipes created by suppliers for their various products. Filling the void this April will be Paul Pacult’s Ultimate Cocktail Challenge, which is expanding its judging range from classic cocktails to signature drinks, as submitted by the suppliers themselves. How, what and why? – Pacult answers, below.
Mix: In last year's inaugural UCC, you tackled the classics - this year, you're adding so-called signature cocktails - why?
Paul Pacult: Adding signature cocktails to Ultimate Cocktail Challenge is a natural and timely addition, which addresses the question, “Which Signature Cocktails are the best in their category?” The idea was pushed along by some of the 2010 UCC judges, David Wondrich, Jacques Bezuidenhout and Dale DeGroff primarily. They convinced me that with hundreds of signature cocktails being promoted by spirits suppliers, importers and communications firms now available, the time is right to independently evaluate them. Of course, they need to be properly entered to be considered by the UCC judging panels. Suppliers can do that by logging onto www.ultimate-beverage.com and clicking on ‘Enter Ultimate Cocktail Challenge.’
Mix: Given the range of quality, from intriguing to simplistic, that suppliers create and disseminate on behalf of their brands, aren't you opening a Pandora's box with this competition?
Pacult: The same could be said for classic cocktails, to some degree. Last year, we had a wide range of quality in some categories. This year we've tightened up the “Classic Cocktail” category by focusing on three recipes per spirits category rather than four to six recipes. So, for example, this year all vodkas entered into Classic Cocktails will judged in Bloody Mary, Cosmopolitan and Vodka & Tonic. With Signature Cocktails, meaning unique cocktails designed to showcase the virtues of one spirit or wine, vice chairman Sean Ludford and I will segregate them into 22 individual categories. That's their peer group and that's how they'll be judged. They'll undergo the same rigorous panel evaluations that the Classic Cocktails do. The highest scoring Signature Cocktail in each category will be declared the winner.
Mix: The main complaint I've heard about signature supplier recipes is that they are often unbalanced, especially when created for what are usually modifying spirits - a potential judging challenge.
Pacult: We've certainly all heard that complaint. That said, I've also tasted some extraordinary signature cocktails. The bad ones typically have a “War And Peace”-length list of ingredients in them, so the spirit that's the focal point is often lost. To counter that, we've limited the number of ingredients to seven, including the garnish. This way, we eliminate many of the most egregious unbalanced offenders.
Mix: Speaking of difficulties, how do you manage things like palate fatigue in judging cocktails, which, with their high acid content, can be as tough to judge in a group as dry rieslings?
Pacult: Palate fatigue is all-too-common in many beverage competitions, including cocktails. UBC's credo states that our innovative methodology includes having a more than ample number of expert panels to handle the judging load. We also spread out UCC over three days and are prepared to add a fourth if the number of entries requires it. Our goal is to keep the judging panels fresh and alert by not overburdening them. Concentration is the key element to being a successful judge. Having been a judge for over thirty years in more competitions than I care to count, I learned firsthand that pacing is crucial, as are breaks in the action. If you look at the videos of the judges on the UBC website, you'll see a pretty happy and enthusiastic group.
Mix: Have you tweaked the non-signature cocktail competition in any way after last year's first go-round? Any lessons learned and implemented?
Pacult: (Ultimate Beverage Challenge partners) Sue Woodley, David Talbot's and my feeling about this is simple: we're always learning at UBC and we're always willing to take whatever action is necessary to implement improvements. Each year we ask the judges how we can make things better for them and the competitions as a whole. While I won't go into specifics because of proprietary concerns, I can answer that all three UBC Challenges – Ultimate Spirits Challenge in March, Ultimate Cocktail Challenge in April and Ultimate Wine Challenge in May – are more streamlined for 2011.
Mix: Any feeling at this point how interested suppliers will be in this new category?
Pacult: Until all the entries are tabulated for Ultimate Cocktail Challenge, we won't know if the Signature Cocktails will outdistance the Classic Cocktails. Since this is the initial year for Signatures, my guess is that Classics will still be number one. But who knows? I've been getting a lot of emails and calls about Signature Cocktails.
Mix: What's your favorite cocktail right now?
Pacult: I'm a fool for classics and right now my favorite cocktail is the Sidecar, followed closely by the Aviation. But then there's the Whiskey Sour and Classic Margarita. Hey, it changes at every bar.