The Manhattan cocktail has stood the test of time, due in part to its simplicity: two parts bourbon to one part vermouth, a few dashes of bitters and a cherry garnish. Six Denver bartenders offered up variations of that classic last night at The Manhattan Experiment cocktail competition at Ste. Ellie, the subterranean bar beneath Colt & Gray. Allison Widdecombe, bartender at local speakeasy Williams & Graham took first place with her version, which she named "Proven Perfect." All competitors were required to use Woodford Reserve bourbon in their recipes.
See also: Best New Bar Denver 2014 - Ste. Ellie
"My cocktail was based on a perfect Manhattan," she said, "which is bourbon or rye whiskey with sweet vermouth and dry vermouth. I was going for a perfect Manhattan style."
Her twist on the classic recipe entailed substituting a tea-infused port wine for the usual sweet and dry vermouths. The result was a rich, complex and slightly sweet flavor that nicely matched the strength of the two ounces of bourbon in the cocktail. Playing off the unique flavor characteristics of Woodford Reserve bourbon, Widdecombe planned another infusion.
"I used some Amere Nouvelle -- which is a bitter orange liqueur -- infused with a little cardamom, to bring out the rye elements in the Woodford Reserve. There's a lot of rye in it."
If you order a Manhattan without any particular modifications, your bartender will most likely use Angostura bitters in your drink. Widdecombe took a clever detour around that tradition. "I used a couple of drops of Fernet Branca as the bitterness," she said. "So, essentially the Bourbon Perfect was the exact perfect Manhattan recipe format with just a couple of different things."
While a panel of three judges declared Widdecombe the winner of the contest, the guests that packed the underground speakeasy cast their own votes. That people's choice winner, called the Word Play, came from Ryan Negley, bartender at Tooey's Off Colfax.
I didn't use any bitters, which is crazy for a Manhattan," he said. "Instead, I used Amaro Nonino, which is very light in body, but very heavy in spices and botanicals. That was my bittering element."
Negley also nixed the sweet vermouth, opting instead for Byrrh Quinquina. "Byrrh is a wonderful, very light, very floral aperitif from the South of France," he said. "It's just so pleasant. It added a beautiful softening element to the cocktail."
Negley, who doesn't compete very often, was pleasantly surprised to win the competition by popular vote. "There were 200 people that showed up. It was nuts," he said. "To have 200 people come in and to be the fan favorite? That's just humbling. When, as a barkeep when you make a drink and at the end of the evening, a customer reaches out his hand and says 'thank you' -- that's what winning the popular vote was like for me."
Widdecombe, who won a trip to Kentucky to visit the distillery where Woodford Reserve bourbon is produced, was also quite happy with her win. "It feels great," she said. "I'm really excited about it. I can't wait to go to Kentucky. I've never been in that part of the country at all."
The Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience competition will hit a total of 20 cities by the end of the year. Master distiller Chris Morris will select six of the 20 winners to compete again in New York City in January, 2015. The winner of that competition will fly to San Francisco to be featured in a photo shoot and a video produced by Liquor.com, one of the event's sponsors.
Judges for the evening were Kevin Burke, Kenny Kodys and David Walsh. Cocktails were awarded points in four categories: taste and balance, creativity and originality, intelligent use of Woodford Reserve bourbon, and presentation and appearance.
Keep reading for a list of recipes from all bartenders in the competition...
The Smoking Cardinal Les Baker V, Session Kitchen
1.5 oz bourbon .5 oz. peach pit- and cardamom-infused vermouth .75 oz Cynar artichoke liqueur 3 drops Woodford Reserve bitters Served in a tobacco-smoked glass Garnished with a "cigar" made of dried peaches, cherries and tobacco
Crack In The Wall Justin Noska, Atticus
2 oz. bourbon 1/3 oz. Galliano 1/3 oz. black pepper simple syrup 1/3 oz. Montenegro 1 dash Peychaud's bitters Garnished with a Luxardo Maraschino cherry and an orange twist
The Imperfect Kamuran Mataraci, Argyll Whiskey Beer
2 oz. bourbon .5 oz. tobacco-infused vermouth (red and white) .5 oz. Amontillado sherry 2 dashes Woodford Reserve barrel-aged bitters Served with a flamed mist of Smith & Cross Jamaican rum
The Word Play Ryan Negley, Tooey's Off Colfax
2 oz. bourbon 1 oz. Amaro Nonino .75 oz. Byrrh Quinquina 1 bar spoon of orange flower water Garnished with a Bordeaux cherry
A Dark Time Derrick Mund, Satchel's On 6th
2 oz. bourbon .75 oz. Priorat Natur vermouth .5 oz. Amaro Nardini 3 dashes of Dead Rabbit Orinoco bitters Garnished with an orange twist
The Proven Perfect Allison Widdecombe, Williams & Graham
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2 oz. bourbon .5 oz. oolong tea-infused port wine .5 oz. cardamom-infused Amere Nouvelle .5 bar spoon of Fernet Branca