If your idea of a perfect cocktail is the Manhattan, then the Spirit of 77 in Portland, Oregon, was where you should have been last night. Spirit was hosting the Portland version of the Woodford Reserve Bourbon Manhattan Experience where 14 talented and creative bartenders bellied up to the bar to determine the one person who will represent the city in the national finals…appropriately enough, to be held in Manhattan.
Some of the talented ‘tenders hewed to the classic line of the traditional Manhattan—up; stirred, not shaken; bourbon (and of course in this case, Woodford Reserve, a decidedly rye-heavy Kentucky Straight Bourbon), sweet vermouth and bitters—-and some used the basic Manhattan as a launching pad for flights of mixological fantasy and dazzling creativity.
Suffice it to say there were numerous impressive cocktails served at that bar. Not all of them were recognizable as Manhattans, but all were impressive on their own merits.
The judges had a hard task to pick a winner for the night…but a winner had to be picked. After whittling the selection down to three finalists, the judges gave Kyle Grosz of Urban Farmer the final nod with his Big Horse Manhattan. Kyle balanced himself carefully on that tightrope between classic and creative by keeping the basic integral structure of the classic Manhattan intact but tweaking the ingredients to provide a tasty and compelling new perspective on the drink.
Big Horse is an assertive, bourbon-forward, spirituous drink—the very essence of a Manhattan, after all, is the whiskey—with some surprising variations that combined to create a greater sum than the parts, without sacrificing or lessening either of said parts. Quite a feat, when you think about it, and quite possibly why Kyle emerged the winner of the contest.
To the Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Kyle added Combier Triple Sec Liqueur, Barolo Chinato, Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters, and a cranberry garnish marinated in Woodford, Madagascar vanilla and other spices.
The essential nature of a great cocktail is not necessarily in the ingredients (although you should always use the best possible ingredients) but in how those ingredients work together. In the Big Horse, they worked seamlessly; each was clearly evident, and each was generously supporting the others. The surprise of the orange sweetness (not normally seen in a Manhattan) was perfectly balanced by the tart, astringent fresh cranberries. The marinade provided a spicy touch that echoed the rye-heavy bourbon precisely. The balance of the cranberries and vanilla marinade alone was impressive, and added immeasurably to the drink—and it followed the cardinal rule of a garnish: it’s not for show; it’s part and parcel of the cocktail.
Kyle clearly understood the basic and essential nature of a Manhattan; at the same time he showed enough creative variation to make it exciting and exotically different without losing the core of the cocktail.
Kyle received a coveted Key to Woodford, where he will always have VIP status. He also qualified to travel to Manhattan to represent Portland in the finals of the Manhattan Experience. If Kyle finishes in the Top Five in the Facebook competition, he’ll also be featured in an article in Esquire Magazine.