Bartender Allison Widdecombe of Williams & Graham just took first place at the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience, a nationwide competition held at the Bowery Hotel in New York City on Monday. "I've been so close to winning a national cocktail competition," says Widdecombe. "It was just a matter of time."
Her road to NYC began in September, when she presented her version of a classic Manhattan cocktail at the first stage of the competition, held at Ste. Ellie. She combined whiskey, tea-infused port wine, cardamom-spiked orange liqueur, and a few drops of Fernet Branca in a cocktail she calls Proven Perfect.
More than 500 bartenders competed across the country in that first round, with 30 semi-finalists flying to Kentucky in December for the second round. Six finalists, including Widdecombe, then moved on to -- where else -- Manhattan (the Lower East Side to be exact) for the final phase of the competition.
"I feel extremely proud," says Widdecombe, who competes regularly, including at a global competition called World Class last year. She didn't win, but performed well, nabbing a few top honors there. Experiences like those taught her a lot about how to compete on a national level, and she's been honing her skills with each event. "I feel like I earned it," she continues. "I put a lot of work into that competition and spent a long time on it."
At the competition, each of the six bartenders were required to make two drinks: one classic Manhattan and one original recipe based on the timeless cocktail. Widdecombe made her Proven Perfect at all three stages of the competition.
"It was packed with guests for the two hours of the competition," Widdecombe explains. She estimates that she made about 300 cocktails for the public, who showed up after the judging portion of the competition. "I was slammed," she says.
For the judging session, Widdecombe came prepared with pickled cherries, which she offered to the judges as a palate cleanser between her classic and modern Manhattans. "It got their palate ready for the next cocktail," she explains. To make them, she steeped fresh cherries in a mixture of sugar cane vinegar and oolong tea. The blend also contained cardamom, black pepper and whiskey.
"I spent the whole time between Kentucky and New York getting them just right," she explains. During that time, she says, her roommate ate a lot of those pickled cherries. Eventually, it all came together: she perfected the cherry recipe about three days before she boarded the plane for New York City.
Now that she's back in Denver, Widdecombe can be found behind the bar at Williams & Graham. "I definitely still have three days per week there, like I normally do," she says. Williams & Graham owners Sean Kenyon and Todd Colehour hopped on a plane to support Widdecombe at the competition. "They both flew in for the night," Widdecombe says. "It was such great support."
"I want Denver to be one of the foremost cocktail destinations on the map," Widdecombe says about why she enjoys competing on a national level. "It brings attention to Denver, which is a huge point for me. If I can help bring attention to this city, that means a lot to me."
What do bartenders at national competitions ask Widdecombe about Denver? "They keep hearing about us," she says, adding that they mention Sean Kenyon and Williams & Graham. But mostly, she says, the talk about snowboarding and legal marijuana.
Obviously, it's more than that to her.
"I want Denver to be on the map'" she continues. "I want to help make it a professional food and beverage scene. We already have that but nobody recognizes it. I feel like we're just starting to get more attention."
Widdecombe's prize package includes a trip to San Francisco where she will be featured in a photo shoot and a series of bartending videos, produced by Liquor.com, one of the event's sponsors. There's not a cash prize, she says, but there's a lot of press for her, Williams & Graham and Denver.
Competitors included Tripper Duval from Goodkind (Milwaukee); Jorge Vargas Baquedano from Jack Rose Libation House (San Francisco); Banjo Amberg from Clyde Common (Portland); Ryan Puckett from the Libertine Liquor Bar (Indianapolis) and Mike Mills from Butcher and the Rye (Pittsburgh).
The judging panel consisted of Charles Joly, David Wondrich, Chris Morris and Jacque Bezeindenhoit.
"Simply, they seem to work for me," Widdecombe says of cocktail competitions. "I have a knack for them, it seems. If you hold yourself professionally and perform well, it can open so many doors and relationships--and I'm all about growing opportunity."
Proven Perfect 2. ounces Woodford Reserve .5 ounce oolong tea-infused ruby port wine .5 ounce cardamom-infused Amere Nouvelle 3 drops of Fernet Branca
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Stir all ingredients over ice and strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with a lemon peel.