Sometimes you just have to come back to the basics: jeans and a t-shirt, steak and potatoes, wine and cheese. If you depart from time-tested templates, it's best to have a good understanding of the solid base that serves as your jumping-off point. Modern bar programs can get quite, well, ambitious, which is all well and good for those seeking creative cocktails. But, classic cocktails like the Manhattan work for a reason; a good bartender can tweak an ingredient or two, like Meghan DePonceau is doing at Tables in Park Hill, to create a great drink by starting with the basics -- and then making it her own.
"For a Manhattan, I like a rye," she says. At Tables she chose Rittenhouse, a big, bold, rye whisky made in Louisville, Kentucky. "It's been my Manhattan choice since I started working here," she continues. Wanting to incorporate seasonal flavors into a cocktail, DePonceau stuffed a bottle of Rittenhouse with sliced MacIntosh apples, skin-on, and let the bottle sit for about four days to soak up the apple flavor.
Rittenhouse is "bottled in bond," which means that it's bottled at 100 proof (most whiskies clock in at about 80 proof). A bonded whiskey must also be the product of one distillation season, made by one distiller at one distillery. Since it's not a blend of whiskeys, like many straight bourbons can be, it starts to resemble a single-malt Scotch whisky profile.
The higher proof means that the spirit is diluted with less water, which in turn means more flavor. A stronger spirit holds up to ice well in a cocktail, retaining flavor as the ice begins to melt.
"Rittenhouse has a higher alcohol proof," DePonceau says, "so it just kind of absorbs and takes on that apple flavor without really destroying the profile of the whiskey. It enhances it a lot."
"It's a great whiskey for its price point," she continues, adding that she's started to see it pop up on cocktail menus lately.
For another shift away from tradtion, DePonceau uses Contratto Vermouth Rosso, a red vermouth produced in Italy since the late 1800s. Although reddish-brown in color, Contratto's base ingredient is actually a white grape, Cortese, a varietal indigenous to the Northern reaches of the country, grown today primarily in the foothills of the Piedmont mountains. The wine is infused with herbs, spices, roots and seeds, then fortified with Italian brandy.
"It's a vermouth you could almost just drink by itself," DePonceau says. "A lot of vermouths have these anise, earthy notes to them. This one has more nuttiness, nutmeg, a little cinnamon." It also plays well with the apple flavor in the whiskey.
But, the biggest impulse to create her cocktail came from the smallest ingredient: a few dashes of black walnut bitters. "That was the key," she explains. "When I got those bitters, that was the inspiration, that was the launching point. It started with the black walnut bitters."
While the Contratto family was producing vermouth in Italy, in 1861 the Fee brothers began making bitters in Rochester, NY. It is one of the only companies that still make bitters. The black walnut bitters that DePonceau uses impart a strong nutty flavor, with hints of hazelnut and unsweetened chocolate. Just a few dashes in her drink result in big flavor.
"I think it can make a Manhattan drinker out of someone who's not a Manhattan drinker," DePonceau says of her recipe. "I think it's a 'winter warmer" kind of cocktail: it's a great way to start off a meal and it goes with a lot of the flavors on the winter menu -- the different spices, the heartiness, the fullness."
DePonceau also thinks that her apple-and-nut cocktail complements the crispy duck breast ($24), which comes with a persimmon-herb bread pudding and a spicy pepper-jelly glaze. "The bread pudding has a little bit of bitter fruit to it," she says. "It's just my favorite dish on the menu right now."
DePonceau started working at Tables a little over a year ago, when she moved to Denver from Buffalo, New York. "It's the only job I've ever really had," she says of bartending. "I like the interaction with customers. I just like to eat and drink and laugh, and that's pretty much the mixture of it."
Cramming apples into a bottle of whiskey is pretty normal at a restaurant like Tables. "The kitchen will have seasonal ingredients,"DePonceau says, "and we can play with them and utilize them so there's this harmonious experience between the kitchen and the bar. I don't think that happens in a lot of restaurants."
She knows what she likes, and she wants to share those things with guests at her bar. Her cocktail-recipe philosophy? "Keep it seasonal, keep it fresh and pair it well with the food."
Black Walnut Apple Manhattan 2 ounces apple-infused Rittenhouse rye whiskey 1 ounce Contratto Vermouth Rosso 3 or 4 dashes of Fee Brothers Black Walnut bitters 1 barspoon of Luxardo cherry juice
Stir all ingredients over ice, then strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with Luxardo cherries and apple rind.