I'm a bourbon drinker, so I was more than happy to be asked to serve as a judge at a manhattan mix-off last night. Sponsored by Woodford Reserve and Esquire, the event was held in Quay's back room overlooking the river, drawing a crowd of about 200 for the free food and booze. Joining me as judges were the Trib's Lauren Viera and Roscoe's Tavern barkeep Shawn Hazen, the winner of last year's contest. We were told that more than 160 recipes had been submitted and vetted. Of the five finalists, two were familiar faces from our Cocktail Challenge: Kris von Dopek of Duchamp and Tim Williams, who's recently started his own business, Pour Souls.
First up was Drew Goss, co-owner with his wife, Susan, of West Town Tavern. Amusingly and rather endearingly, he'd ridden the bus over to the event, so instead of pouring from bottles, he used pre-prepared little vials for his ingredients, of which there were many:
• 1 ¾ oz Woodford Reserve
• 1 oz toasted pecan pieces
• 4 coffee beans
• ¼ oz vanilla-infused vodka
• ¼ oz ginger liqueur
• 8 drops of Pernod
• ½ oz Kahlua
• ¾ oz crème de cassis
• grind of black pepper
• cinnamon stick garnish
His Autumn Leaves Manhattan was something, but a manhattan? Not so much. And there were just too many discordant elements for it to achieve balance.
Balance was the downfall of the next entry as well. Williams's Because It's Kentucky Manhattan employed Woodford Reserve, sweet vermouth, maple syrup, and two dashes of barbecue bitters—the last overpowered everything else.
Von Dopek's cocktail, the Scent of Versailles Manhattan, was the most cleverly named and creative of the evening. The Woodford Reserve distillery is in Versailles (evidently pronounced "versales"), Kentucky; the scent he added by turning the martini glass over star anise that he'd flamed, imparting a smoky, fragrant aroma to the cocktail. His was a true manhattan: bourbon, vermouth, and bitters, in this case Woodford Reserve, Noilly Prat Vermouth, peach bitters, and an ounce of a peach-coriander cordial he'd made. Balanced, complex, intriguing—I gave him 46 out of the 50 points possible (in addition to creativity, the categories were recipe name, ingredients, presentation, and recipe taste).
If there had been a category for flair in making and presenting the cocktail—and bartender Hazen remarked that he wished there were—von Dopek would have ruled. His class act was followed by Roof's Johnny Avens, who frankly was pretty loud and obnoxious, name checking his friends in the crowd and generally acting like a douche. But his cocktail, the New York Breakfast Manhattan, was irresistible. Here's the recipe:
• 2 oz Woodford Reserve
• ¾ oz maple syrup
• ¼ oz fresh lemon juice
• garnish of maple-syrup-candied orange slice
This was a cocktail I'd gladly fork over money for. This was a cocktail I could see sipping happily throughout the course of an evening. On my tally sheet Avens edged out von Dopek by one point, based on the ten I gave him for recipe taste.
The last entry, Underground mixologist Orlando De Leon's Woodford Newhattan, was also true to the traditional components, using sweet vermouth and cherry bitters in addition to the Woodford Reserve. But, as Goss had, he added ginger liqueur to the mix, throwing everything off and adding an acrid taste—blech.
As this year's Chicago winner, Avens will move on to nationals in the contest, scheduled for January 9, 2012, in—where else—Manhattan. Hopefully he'll class up his act.