Spoon theatrics and bourbon fireworks at the Manhattan Experience

Of the nine semifinal contenders in the Vegas leg of the nationwide Manhattan Experience, this concoction by J.R. Starkus was my favorite. It’s called Untitled, and it tastes unbelievable. Starkus ended up taking third during the live competition this Tuesday, sharing the mixology spotlight with runner-up Eric Hobbie and winner Tim Weigel.
Photo: Erin Ryan

It’s a damn good Tuesday afternoon when you find yourself parked in front of three glasses of bourbon. They were samples of the featured ingredient about to be mixed into nine original cocktails contending for $1,500 and a shot at a national mixology title: “Master of the Manhattan.”

Jointly put on by Esquire and Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, the 2012 Manhattan Experience is drawing competitors across the country to 20 semifinal showdowns through the end of November, including this one hosted by Wirtz Beverage Nevada and featuring some heavy hitters in the local bar scene. My favorite magazine, my favorite booze category and my favorite classic beverage rolled into one? Hallelujah.

Behind the Wirtz Alchemy Room’s massive bar, the competitors took their turns in sets of two, with 10 minutes to make four cocktails each. The atmosphere was informal and fun, with friendly heckling and plenty of inside-baseball questions from the judges. In the order they appeared, the semifinalists and their Manhattan spins (all featuring Woodford Reserve) were:

1. J.R. Starkus (RM Seafood), Untitled: with Sortilège maple syrup and whiskey liqueur, Punt e Mes vermouth, Angostura bitters, house-made cinnamon tincture, candied orange wheel. Starkus said: “The inspiration behind my drink was actually a recent trip I had to Chicago, where we had a little bit of a meeting place, and the bar was called Untitled. I was inspired by that name because it kind of lets you make what you will of it, which I really enjoyed. Being that this is a rendition of a Manhattan and not a classic Manhattan, I named it Untitled because it is, again, what you make of it.”

2. Nicole Barker (Cin Cin, Eldorado Casino in Reno), Rosewood Manhattan: with Leopold Bros. Rocky Mountain blackberry liqueur, St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram, Angostura bitters, flamed cinnamon-dusted orange zest. Barker said: “My husband drinks Manhattans, exclusively Knob Creek Manhattans. So my challenge was not only to impress you but to actually make a Manhattan that my husband would drink, and this was the winner.”

3. Scott Hartmann (Bar + Bistro), Coffee and Cigarettes in the Park: with cigar tobacco-infused Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, Borghetti espresso liqueur, Fee Brothers black walnut bitters, Fee Brothers Aztec chocolate bitters, charred cedar infusion, lemon twist. Hartmann said: “Anybody who lives in Manhattan, you know Central Park is called ‘the Park,’ and you go down to the Park and you have coffee and cigarettes, and that was my inspiration behind this cocktail.”

4. Nathan Greene (RM Seafood), The Witching Hour: with Kronan Swedish Punsch, Drambuie 15 whiskey liqueur, Scrappy’s chocolate bitters, Bowmore 12-year-old single malt Scotch rinse, house-made chocolate-toffee morsel. Greene said: “Unlike J.R., I like long walks on the beach, sniffing glue, making mediocre cocktails … So mine is called the Witching Hour. Basically, witching hour is a synonym for midnight, so this is what I was originally gonna call Manhattan after Dark, but there’s already a cocktail named that.”

5. Wendy Verdel-Hodges (Fusion), Breakfast in Manhattan: with apples, bacon and cinnamon infused into the bourbon, Lillet Blanc, Bar Code baked apple bitters, maple-cinnamon apple chip with edible gold dust. Verdel-Hodges said: “I’m staying very traditional with my Manhattan, by simply the three ingredients—four if you include the ice.”

6. Tim Weigel (Aria), Perfectly Reserved: with San Francisco Bitters Company Comstock bitters, Drillaud blackberry crème de mure, Lustau dry amontillado “Los Arcos” sherry, ice sphere flavored with the Bitter Truth celery bitters. Weigel said: “The first component is gonna be a celery bitters ice sphere; it adds a vegetable or herbaceous note to the cocktail. The second ingredient is San Francisco Bitters Company Comstock bitters; it provides a savory anisette-spearmint bouquet to the cocktail. Third component is the crème de mure; it’s got a fruity, floral flavor in the cocktail. And the fourth ingredient is Lustau dry amontillado sherry; it’s gonna add warm flavors of toffee and pecans. Finally, Woodford Reserve is gonna bring all these ingredients to the perfect harmony.”

7. Tommy Lundquist (Aria), Midtown: with Averna herbal liqueur, Cocchi Americano aperitif wine, cherry bitters, maraschino cherry. Lundquist said: “I wanted to keep as traditional as I could with the Manhattan. I think it’s a fantastic cocktail—predates cocktail books even—so instead of sweet vermouth, which is generally known as an Italian vermouth, I stuck with Italian ingredients to kind of recreate that. … Again with the tradition, it’s kind of sacrilege, but I’m sticking with the maraschino cherries because I love the look of maraschino.”

8. Eric Hobbie (B and B Ristorante), Manhattan Italiano: with Cardamaro aperitif wine, Solerno blood orange liqueur, Bittermens Elemakule Tiki bitters, burnt orange zest, star anise “tea bag.” Hobbie said: “A Manhattan is a seasonal drink to me. This is the season when I drink my Manhattans, in the fall, when the colors are changing and I want something a little bit warmer and spicier.”

9. Raul Faria (Serendipity 3), Spiced Cherry Manhattan: with Cherry Heering, Lillet Blanc, Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters, Kübler absinthe-soaked Luxardo maraschino cherry. Faria said: “Spiced Cherry Manhattan is pretty on the nose, but it’s a simple Manhattan, so I wanted to keep it simple but turn up the volume on those flavors.”

Starkus used the longest bar spoon I’ve ever seen to stir his drink, delivering this line: “There’s no clapping when you stir like there is when you shake.” Hartmann mixed his ingredients in a whipped cream charger to infuse them with the charred cedar-chip essence, which covered the room in a luscious smoky perfume throughout his performance. When Wirtz Beverage Development Specialist and judge Andrew Pollard asked Greene how he would describe RM Seafood’s “core program,” Greene looked at Starkus and said, “mad science and whiskey,” laughing and adding that they’ve gone very culinary with their cocktails, from playing with gastriques and tinctures to sous vide-ing vermouth. Verdel-Hodges lost count of her pours while she was answering a question, but a quick taste alerted her to some missing bourbon. Faria joked about his bar spoon in relation to Starkus’ whopper: “I’m feeling very, very self-conscious about the size of my spoon all of a sudden.”

Starkus, Weigel and Hobbie with Weigel's great big check.

Starkus, Weigel and Hobbie with Weigel's great big check.

All nine drinks looked beautiful and clean. Most were served in coupes, and colors ranged from the deep purple of Barker’s Rosewood to the liquid gold of Verdel-Hodges’ Breakfast. She called it “very traditional,” but to me, Breakfast tasted and looked the most playful, the strong apple and bacon notes kicking it into its own category in a field of predominantly bourbon-forward takes on the “Perfect Manhattan.” Given the credentials and ingredients and love that went into them, I wasn’t surprised that everything I tried I would order again. But my vote would have gone to Starkus. Inspired by Woodford’s “softness,” as he put it, and its whispers of maple, vanilla and cinnamon, he made a concoction that played up those attributes and that is “much more drinkable than a straight Manhattan but has the soul.”

Starkus’ approach took third place. Hobbie came in second, and the big winner was Weigel, who will soon be added (along with his recipe) to the list of Manhattan Experience semifinal winners on Woodford Reserve’s website, where public votes will determine who makes the final five in New York. Someone commented that no matter where you rank, competitions always teach you things, always make you better. And the free booze doesn’t hurt.


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