Austin James Carson, bar manager at Mizuna, won the regional Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience cocktail competition Wednesday night. Carson beat out six other Denver-area bartenders with his unique version of the classic Manhattan cocktail, and will try to take that recipe to New York City in April to compete for the national title — but his next stop will be Louisville, Kentucky, for the semifinal in March.
“It’s awesome,” Carson says on winning this leg of the competition, which took place at the Corner Office. “It feels surreal.”
The event required bartenders to utilize Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon as the foundation of their recipes. Competitors were also required to submit an essay on the topic of why the Manhattan cocktail — a blend of whiskey, vermouth and bitters — is an integral part of American history.
Carson’s winning recipe includes tropical flavors such as banana and coconut — and his presentation to the judges demonstrated that his cocktail is wrapped firmly in the history of the cocktail’s birthplace: Manhattan.
Here's Carson’s cocktail, which he calls Moment of Clarity:
2 ounces Woodford Reserve Double Oaked bourbon
.75 ounce Giffard Banane du Brésil banana liqueur
.5 ounce Amaro di Angostura
.5 ounce Angostura bitters
.75 ounce coconut water
To make the drink, Carson boils all of the liquid ingredients in a small tea kettle. He then adds dry loose-leaf yerba mate into a tea strainer, holding the strainer over the tea kettle while pouring the hot liquids into a glass, over a hand-chiseled ice cube.
“Basically, all I did was take a tea strainer,” he says, “fill it with two tablespoons of smoked yerba mate, and after the cocktail was brought to a boil, I just poured it over.”
To present his drink to the panel of judges, Carson placed three of his original cocktails on three small picture frames. “The map inside the frame was a map of New York,” he says, “specifically because that’s where the Manhattan originated, in 1862. I wanted something that had some sort of historical feel to it.”
Carson garnished the picture frames with a single cigarette each, dripping red wax on the frames to simulate cherry juice leaking from the cigarette’s unlit end. Fastened into the wax was a cherry, which the judges could eat while enjoying the drink. “The cherries were brandied in Woodford Reserve,” Carson says, “and then toasted over uncooked rice, vanilla tobacco and the same yerba mate tea that was in the cocktail itself.”
The Moment of Clarity, Carson's wining cocktail, as it was presented to the judges.
In looking for inspiration for a recipe, Carson read a book called The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto, written in 1951 by American historian and author Bernard DeVoto. In the book, DeVoto denounces the Manhattan cocktail, and most other mixed drinks, too. “Whiskey and vermouth cannot meet as friends,” DeVoto wrote, “and the Manhattan is an offense against piety.”
But it was another passage that piqued Carson’s interest and became his inspiration: “It [the Manhattan] signifies that the drinker, if male, has no spiritual dignity and would really prefer white mule; if female, a banana split.”
Carson’s recipe reads like a defense of the Manhattan through a mockery of DeVoto’s hatred of the drink. “I took the idea of a banana split,” he says, “and sort of built it around a banana liqueur and the whiskey. I kind of slowly built it into something that I thought was interesting.”
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Carson’s recipe contains no handmade ingredients, which he admits was difficult for him, since he makes so many of them behind the bar at Mizuna. For this recipe, he employed a different strategy. “I decided to try a technique that I hadn’t seen before and thought would be interesting,” he says. “I tried heating the ingredients. Pouring it over ice became kind of the focus.”
Why did he decide to pour a hot cocktail over ice? “I don’t know,” he says. “I was curious what would happen.”
Austin competed against six other local bartenders, including Chad Larson, Topher Hartfield, Carrie Miller, Brittany Wangsness and Cori O’Connor. Thirty-three other cities participated in the competition across the country, and winners from those cities will convene in March in Louisville, Kentucky, where six finalists will be chosen. Those six finalists will meet in Manhattan on April 17 for one more competition to determine the national winner, who will be flown to San Francisco to be featured in a video series sponsored by Liquor.com. Last year, Denver bartender Allison Widdecombe took the top prize in New York City; here's her video.