The evening started out slowly, probably due to the snow blanketing the parking spaces outside Brenner Pass. But a few hours into the 2018 Manhattan Experience bartending competition March 12, industry insiders filled the venue with cheers and plenty of appreciation for sponsor Woodford Reserve's bourbon and rye. Hometown favorites, out-of-town standouts and even last year's winning bartender served the judges their shaken and stirred competition entries.
"I sent my two recipes in at the last minute," says Kristel Poole, bartender and general manager at Graffiato. "It took a lot of testing, everyone at my bar helped taste the drinks and give feedback."
Bartenders from Woodford Reserve's 39 market areas sent in two recipes each: a take on a classic Manhattan and a more creative recipe. Only eight Virginians were chosen to compete, six of whom are from Richmond.
"Virginia sent in 56 submissions, more than any other of our markets in the U.S.," says Sean Fitzgerald, market manager for Brown-Forman Corp., which owns Woodford Reserve. "We hosted the event here because Brenner Pass is pretty much the top Woodford account in the whole state."
Bartender Shelby Hastings of Postbellum kicked off the evening, describing the process for creating his smoked anise bitters. Poole, smiling, relaxed and confident despite this being her first competition, stepped behind the bar next. She was followed by Steve Yang, from Tavola in Charlottesville, throwing off the practiced vibe of the seasoned competitor.
Meanwhile, Brenner Pass bartender Rachel Boxley served the thirsty onlookers while Woodford representatives held guided bourbon and rye tastings on the side. Guests snacked on Brenner Pass treats including pork and apple croquettes with onion soubise and smoked ricotta and prune jam on crispy lavash bread.
Next, Laura Unterberg from Brenner Pass admitted her hands were shaking, even though she was competing in her home bar. Logan Mosteller from Watts & Ward in Raleigh, North Carolina, was quiet and buttoned down, making eye contact with the three judges but not playing to the crowd.
By the time Eliz Nguyen from the Hardshell strode behind the bar, flashing smiles and tossing her blue-tinged hair, the bourbon fan club was cheering. Competitor Justin Ayotte from Saison watched his predecessors carefully, then lined up a collection of cut-glass stemware and a cognac-glass shaped crystal cocktail shaker before serving his entries.
Ayotte's glassware game was strong, but trumped by the gold-rimmed coupes belonging to defending champion Sophia Kim of Saison, filled with her fat-washed chocolate bourbon and coconut rum Double or Nothing, and her Spot on Manhattan. By that point, the previous competitors were bellied-up to the expansive bar, hanging on her descriptions of ingredients.
The crowd of chefs, servers and bartenders buzzed and took notes while the judges conferred. Friends who worked together at previous restaurants reconnected and posed for event photos.
In the end, Richmond dominated. Kim took top honors for her second year, followed by Unterberg from Brenner Pass and Ayotte from Saison. Kim won a trip to the finals in Louisville in April, where winners from the 39 markets will compete for six slots at the finale in Manhattan. The finale champ wins a trip to London, and bourbon bragging rights for all eternity. But Brenner Pass and Saison have already won over Richmond's diners looking for the best bourbon and rye drinks in town. S
Spot On Manhattan
Sophia Kim, Saison
2 parts Woodford Reserve Rye
1/2 part Cynar
1/2 parts Valedespino amontillado sherry
1/8 parts Bodega Yuste Aurora Pedro Ximenez sherry
3 dashes Angostura bitters
1 drop saline solution (1 part salt dissolved in 10 parts water)
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass. Fill glass with ice and stir until ice is cold and diluted. Pour into a chilled coupe glass and express a slice of orange peel across the surface. Garnish with the peel on the lip of the glass.