There’s a new wrinkle to the 2017 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience. The regional winners aren’t just traveling to Kentucky to experience Woodford Reserve’s iconic distillery: The 39 bartenders also came to compete for six spots in the finals in New York.
Things kicked off at Lola, a refined bar above Butchertown Grocery, where bartending luminaries Charles Joly and Jacques Bezuidenhout welcomed the competitors with some delicious, innovative cocktails. The regional winners were great company, and the looming semifinals didn’t diminish the camaraderie among the bartenders, making the evening a highlight of the trip.
The bartenders didn’t have to wait long to start making cocktails. The brand-new semifinals were the following day, with half the bartenders competing at 21c Hotel in the morning while the others went to Bean for a coffee-roasting seminar and a hands-on learning experience. The two groups swapped places after lunch.
The semifinal competition pushed the bartenders beyond the cocktails that got them there, challenging them to create a standout Old Fashioned and Mint Julep. They could make one in the classic style and put their own personal spin on the other. This, along with the Manhattan and original cocktail they already submitted, showed who had a firm grasp on the classics and the improvisational ability to create their version.
But the bartenders themselves were under just as much scrutiny as their cocktails. Anyone hoping to reach the finals would have to pair high-quality cocktails with some serious poise and personality behind the bar.
The winners wouldn’t be announced until the following evening, but the bartenders had a lot to do before then. They got a hosted tour of one of the few functional cooperages left in the US. It was a rare look at barrels being made and charred, and gave the bartenders a vivid look at the craftsmanship that goes into each barrel and bottle of Woodford Reserve.
Naturally, the next stop was the Woodford Reserve distillery. But this tour wasn’t just a walkthrough of the production process. Bartenders engaged with Woodford with a flavor wheel sensory tasting. The regional winners each blended their own batch of Woodford barrels in the rickhouse with Master Distiller Chris Morris. They even toasted a barrel, had a blind taste test and—keeping with the competitive atmosphere of the trip—had a rubber ducky race down the natural aquifer. The day was equal parts informative and playful for the 39 bartenders.
The trip culminated in an exceptional dinner at the Holly Hill Inn, a charming and family-owned restaurant offering fine dining in the heart of horse country. When the finalists were announced following dinner, it became clear that the semifinals weren’t the only new development in the 2017 competition. The quality of talent assembled made it impossible to choose just six finalists, so the judges sent seven bartenders to the finals in New York, as opposed to the usual six.
It was a lot to pack into three days, but the bartenders all took home a deeper understanding and appreciation of whiskey—and had a lot of fun in the process. It’s hard to imagine that the stakes will be even higher as the seven top bartenders arrive in New York to compete for the title of Master of the Manhattan.