About 30 judges gathered last Friday afternoon in the Chairman's Room at The Metropolitan Grill for the 2nd Annual Manhattan contest. Five Met Grill staff members created variations of the classic cocktail using exclusive bourbons from Woodford Reserve, Elijah Craig, and Eagle Rare. The winning "Met Manhattan" will be featured on the menu for 2011-2012.
The five entries ranged from a sweet concoction that included a splash of Southern Comfort to a smoky, balanced one made with Fernet Branca and maraschino liqueur. Each cocktail riffed on the classic Manhattan recipe of two ounces of bourbon whiskey, one of sweet vermouth, and a dash or two of bitters. The bitters used included Peychaud's and Fee Brothers cranberry or orange. Surprisingly, no one used the classic Angostura, and only one added a couple dashes of absinthe, a liqueur that was popularized in the late 19th century, around the same time the Manhattan was invented.
Each cocktail was judged for flavor, originality, and presentation. I loved the rich, ruby color of Scott's entry at table #3. His Manhattan included Elijah Craig 18-year old bourbon, Carpano Antica vermouth, Six Grapes ruby port, and orange and cranberry bitters from Fee Brothers. It had a nice cherry-like fruit flavor, but I found it lacked the bold bourbon flavor found in a classic Manhattan. Erica at table #2 made her Manhattan with Eagle Rare 10-year old bourbon, Pineau des Charentes--a French aperitif--and cranberry bitters, and garnished the cocktail with a grape. It was a little light in flavor, but definitely won points for originality.
The Manhattan made by Marcus at table #4 included the Eagle Rare 10-year, Carpano Antica vermouth, Peychaud's bitters, whiskey-barrel-aged bitters from Fee Brothers, and a dash of Southern Comfort. It had a nice citrus aroma, but had a smokiness I found unappealing. My favorite Manhattan was at table #1, made by Steve. It reminded me of the Red Hook, a Manhattan variation created by Enzo Errico, a bartender at Milk & Honey in New York. Like the Red Hook, Steve's creation included maraschino, which gave it a slightly nutty, cherry-like flavor. In addition to maraschino, he used Eagle Rare 10-year old bourbon, Fernet Branca, and Peychaud's bitters. The cocktail was quite well-balanced, considering that a heavy hand on any one of those ingredients could have resulted in a poor cocktail.
The winner of the night was Rob Nokes, head bartender at The Met. Rob mixed Woodford Reserve bourbon, Carpano Antica vermouth, Lucid absinthe, and Fee Brothers' cranberry bitters. He dripped the absinthe into the mixing glass using a brouilleur, or see-saw absinthe dripper, thus assuring only a few drops were added. He suggested his Manhattan was more like a Sazerac, but in later chatting with fellow judge Paul Clarke, a better comparison was suggested. Paul said Rob's creation was "like a Manhattan of the 1890s," suggesting that absinthe was likely included in many early variations of the cocktail.
While I love a classic Manhattan, many variations stay true to the original while offering refreshing new flavors. There is the presumptuously named Perfect Manhattan, which includes both sweet and dry vermouth; a Black Manhattan, made with Averna instead of sweet vermouth; the Manhattan Bianco, equal parts bourbon and bianco vermouth; and an Inverted Manhattan, which flip-flops the ratio of bourbon and vermouth. The five Manhattans I tried at The Met only continue the long-held tradition of trying to improve perfection.
I like what Jason Wilson, booze columnist for the Washington Post once said: "For me, what makes the Manhattan the greatest cocktail is that, like a great piece of music, it encourages endless riffs, improvisations, and progressions."