Think coffee cocktails, think Espresso Martini, right? Why wouldn’t you – it’s a modern classic. But here’s the thing; not wishing to take anything away from Dick Bradsell’s iconic recipe, aka the Vodka Espresso, created in the early 1980s, there’s more to coffee cocktails than vodka + coffee liqueur + espresso, however tasty that particular winning combo may be.

Above: La Belle Epoque by Hannah Lockett

Enter Maja Jaworska, Grey Goose Coffee Ambassador. No prizes for guessing why she was brought into the Grey Goose fold. “Mine is an amazing role which is to bridge the gap between coffee and cocktails,” she explains. And we can’t think of a more perfect person to do it. Having spent time honing her craft as a barista, she joined forces with the cool kids at White Lyan, showcasing her coffee wizardy. But back to her current position… “This role has never really been done before so it’s challenging and very exciting,” she admits. “One of the ideas I had was to bring speciality coffee to bartenders by holding a competition to allow them to exercise their creativity beyond the Espresso Martini. The aim is to show that coffee serves can be a lot more versatile.” Yet even she was gobsmacked by the results.

Above: Vodka Flat White by Ben Alcock

The brief was sent to carefully chosen venues. “I picked six different venues in London where they ran in-house competitions for the semi-finals level. Then we had two chapters for north and south of England which were open to all venues in that region.”

We joined Maja and the ten finalists (see below) at Le Logis, the stunning chateau set in Juillac-le-Coq, in Cognac, the very proud home of Grey Goose Vodka.

Talk about the most relaxing setting for a comp, in between sipping expertly made Grey Goose cocktails, dining on all kinds of amazing meals prepared by the in-house chef, cooling off from the 30-plus degrees sun in the pool and getting the skinny on Grey Goose production with Maître de Chai (creator and cellar master) François Thibault, the competitors got their chance to show off their newfound coffee knowledge.

Above: Cocktail by Alberto Rodriguez Sanchez

The judging panel, made up of François, Maja, Nicole Gibson from Virgin Atlantic Airlines and us, were treated to coffee every which way – from an inverted brew method in an aeropress, made with water brought over to France from Bristol (Ben Alcock) to a cold brew steeped for 14 hours to parallel the use of winter wheat in Grey Goose (Jamie Lock), hand on heart, there wasn’t a dud in the house. 

Deliberation was tough. Tougher than most comps to be completely honest, but in the end Nicole Sykes from Lyaness in London was named the winner. Little wonder really, her delicately nuanced Bellini-style cocktail was a lesson in balance and respect of flavours, plus her presentation ticked every box: coffee know-how, the idea of giving back, brand knowledge and perhaps most importantly, a totally sublime drink. Her prize? A trip to San Francisco, something she also acknowledge in her chat. Not only will she get to visit the home of coffee culture, she’ll be serving her winning cocktail, Side By Side onboard the Virgin Atlantic flight.

Grey Goose Coffee Competition 2019 winner, Nicole Sykes

We spoke to Nicole once she’d digested the news of her win. Talking coffee and Grey Goose, of course…

How would you describe your coffee knowledge prior to the competition?

Pretty basic. I drank a lot of coffee but didn’t really know anything about the processes. I thought I did but I didn’t at all.

How would you describe it now?

I’m fairly confident. I know more about the processes now, so I have that foundation knowledge which really helps but I’m no Maja! I went to her coffee training and she went into such great depth about coffee – it’s similar to wine in a way – and I’ve got a lot more respect for it now.

In what way?

I had no idea about terroir or growing conditions, I didn’t think about it – I just thought a coffee bean was a coffee bean and you could grow it anywhere but it’s a whole other world. I find it all super interesting.

What was it about this particular competition that appealed?

The brief. To use coffee in a drink is something that’s quite intimidating – it’s actually quite hard to do and most people aren’t that good at it. As bartenders we take advantage of the Espresso Martini because it’s really the only coffee drink that we know tastes good. So I think being able to play with coffee and vodka and not recreate an Espresso Martini was what stood out to me. 

So you liked the challenge?

Yes. Also, like most bartenders, we always say we want to know more about coffee but this was really my chance to go out and really learn about it.

How many coffee cocktails had you made prior to coming up with your winning recipe?

Honestly, I can only think of one and it was a Negroni with a cold brew. Before this competition I’d never really played with extracting flavours.

What was your perception of coffee cocktails before the competition?

I really thought they were all the same and I wasn’t that interested. Any time I’d ever seen one on a menu it was a digestif-style –  stirred down, brown with a splash of cold brew, either that or a twist on an Espresso Martini.

What came first, the background story or the idea for the drink?

Definitely the idea for the drink. I said earlier that I found coffee cocktails very samey, so I really wanted to take a drink that you would never imagine putting coffee in, the story started to unfold when I started thinking how I was going to showcase the coffee. In the end I linked it into the story of sticking side by side with your suppliers.

Tell us about the moment that you nailed the recipe?

I really love peach and knew that I wanted to use it in my drink, so when I got in touch with Julian, the barista that I worked with, we worked together to find a coffee with peach aromas and peach/stone fruit flavours. It was at that point, when he went into so much detail about why Colombian single origin coffee had all the characteristics that I was looking for, it just totally made sense to me to use those two things together.

Which is the perfect moment to talk about the coffee company that you teamed up with. Give them a shout-out…

They’re called Second Shot Coffee and they’re an independent company based in East London. They make coffee but also run a payback scheme which means when you buy your coffee or sandwich, you can also buy a drink and some hot food for someone living on the street. The other good thing is that they only employ people who have been affected by homelessness and they train them up, not just to be baristas but also in general life skills, like help getting bank accounts sorted and things like that.

Did you know about them before the competition?

Yes, it’s my local coffee shop. I’ve got to know them pretty well so I knew I could call on them for the coffee knowledge that I lacked. Basically, I just pestered them! Any time I had a question, I asked them directly. They always gave me the time of day.

How many did you coffees did you try before deciding on ‘the one’?

Six. They were all from the same roaster but as soon as we opened the bag containing this one, you could smell the peach and I knew that I had to use it in the drink.

Why did you go for a Bellini-style drink?

Because of my love of peaches but also I wanted to create a ‘toast’ drink. The whole story was about toasting to confidence and success – the act of sticking together to achieve success.

Tell us about your Le Logis expertence?

I honestly thought it was magical. It’s a true reflection of Grey Goose and the whole living victoriously ethos. The hospitality was so warm and genuine and of course, there was the pool…

What was your favourite part of the trip?

The day that we went out into the cognac fields with François. Obviously, we were on a vodka-led trip but he wasn’t afraid to talk about his cognac knowledge which was very impressive.

Has your perception of Grey Goose changed since your time at Le Logis?

Absolutely! For instance, I didn’t know too much about the flavoured vodkas in the portfolio and I didn’t know how much care and effort they put into sourcing the fruits that go into them. Also, I didn’t know how tight and family-led the brand is. Like most people, I assumed that it’s such a big brand but actually everything is super handcrafted.

Next stop, San Francisco! What are you looking forward to?

I’ve never made a cocktail on a plane – it’s quite nerve-wracking! The first thing that came to mind is how big is this plane which has a fully functioning bar on it! I don’t know the process yet but I know that I’ll by serving my Side By Side cocktail alongside Grey Goose Espresso Martinis.

Who would you most like to serve your Side By Side cocktail to on the flight?

Julian for helping me so much with the process – I’d love to take him with me. He melts my heart.

Any tips for anyone who’s read this and wants to take part next year?

Do something really different. Coffee is so diverse the more you look into it. I only extracted oils from the coffee, I didn’t physically brew it, the whole point is to be innovative. Don’t be afraid to do something really different. It might not work but then again, it might.

Side By Side
40ml Columbian coffee oil washed grey goose original
30ml ‘ugly’ peach cordial
1.25ml turbo citrus
60ml soda water
Orange coin for aroma

The 10 competitors (in order of presentation)

Alexandra Farrow – Grind, London
Benjamin Alcock – Filthy XIII, Bristol
Jamie Lock – The Dead Canary, Cardiff
Danny Laycock – Banyan, Leeds
Khadar Syed – Curtain Hotel, London
Alberto Rodriguez Sanchez – Bart’s Bar, London
Kelly Danishewsky – London Cocktail Club
Hannah Lockett – Birdies BBQ & Grill, Liverpool
Nicole Sykes – Lyaness, London
Aaron Oduro – Notes Coffee, London

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