Woodford Reserve invited 40 bartenders to Kentucky for the 2019 Manhattan Experience semifinals. But choosing six finalists wasn’t the sole reason for the trip. It was also a chance for Woodford to bring bartenders from as far as Puerto Rico, Vancouver and even Australia into their home.
The Judges Welcome with Whiskey
The semifinalists were greeted with signature whiskey cocktails made by the judges, who are some of the leading minds in the bar and beverage world. Many of the semifinalists rushed to Julie Reiner to have her sign copies of her book, “The Craft Cocktail Party: Delicious Drinks for Every Occasion.” Jacques Bezuidenhout and Charles Joly also welcomed competitors with delicious cocktails and lively conversation.
Only Good Vibes from the Start
Each competitor showcased a different expression in their recipe, demonstrating the breadth and quality of Woodford Reserve. But more than anything, the first night was for the judges and competitors to get to know one another, even making a few industry connections.
“It was just a lovely group of bartenders who were excited to compete together,” says Bezuidenhout. “They all wanted to learn, and they all brought some special energy and represented themselves and their bars in a great way.”
Not a Bad Manhattan in Sight
That special energy was visible as the competitors presented their cocktails the following day. This year’s batch of Manhattans showed an unprecedented level of technical skill and detail. The judges were impressed that the bartenders didn’t try to radically change the classic recipe but presented the best possible version with subtle, thoughtful tweaks.
The high quality was partly due to experience. Richmond, Va.’s Sophia Kim is competing in her third Manhattan Experience, and even advanced to the finals last year, so she has had plenty of time to think about what makes a Manhattan special.
“The key will always be the base spirit. If you keep it simple, you can really let the bourbon, rye or whiskey shine,” says Kim.
The Woodford Family Keeps Growing
The fact that so many bartenders return to the competition year-after-year speaks to how much they get out of the experience—and how they feel about Woodford Reserve. Zachary Helton, another three-time competitor, speaks about how Woodford treats bartenders.
“Woodford Reserve made me feel like a member of their small family,” says Helton. “Being able to call their distillers friends is true Southern hospitality.”
By the end of the day, every semifinalist had assembled their Manhattan and original cocktail for the judges. The competition was so tight that the judges needed the night to decide who would take the sixth and final spot in the finals.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
The Distillery Lives Up to the Hype
The Woodford Reserve distillery is about an hour away from Louisville, but it’s an exceptionally beautiful drive through horse country. Touring the distillery was a major highlight for everyone who went, from the competitors to the judges.
“The Woodford distillery is such a beautiful property,” says Reiner. “This year, we had incredible weather and were able to have lunch outside, which was a real treat for those of us who were coming from colder locations.”
A Walk Through Bourbon History
Calgary’s James Grant was similarly struck by Woodford Reserve distillery. “It’s truly one of the most important sites in bourbon history, and getting to walk through the stillhouse and rickhouses was a real joy,” he says.
Bourbon Masters Share their Secrets
But the group wasn’t just there to admire the scenery. Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris gave the bartenders an in-depth education in how to make bourbon. This was followed by a sensory tasting led by assistant master distiller Elizabeth McCall.
“Chris Morris and Elizabeth McCall are such inspiring and captivating people. They are both excellent storytellers and so intimately familiar with every step of the creation of Woodford Reserve,” says Vancouver’s Jared Schmidt. “When you get to see behind the curtain and then meet the people who help make a brand what it is, that’s the most interesting part of the experience.”
The Barrels Go Up in Flames
The flashiest moment was getting to watch a live barrel toasting. This is an essential part of Woodford’s process, and there’s an exact science to it. You need to char each barrel long enough to release sweet aromatics, but doing so too long will take away the vanilla character people expect from Woodford Reserve.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
And the Finalists Are …
After a full day making themselves at home at the Woodford distillery, it was time to find out who would be advancing to the next round. The finalists are Robert Adamson, James Grant, Zachary Helton, Sophia Kim, Caleb Kimbley and Jared Schmidt.
One of these six bartenders will be the 2019 Master of the Manhattan. But none of the other semifinalists showed any hard feelings—just the opposite, since the announcement was followed by a massive group hug. Charles Joly has an idea why everyone was feeling so positive.
“At the end of three days together in Louisville, everyone takes away so much,” Joly says. “Win or lose, you end up with 40 new friends, a fantastic visit to bourbon country and an immersive dive into all things whiskey.”
A Brief Preview of the Finals
The six winners are already looking forward to traveling to New York City for the finals on May 20. Although it’s not just for the chance to win a trip to London Cocktail Week and be named Master of the Manhattan. Kimbley says, “I can’t wait to finally get a good slice of pizza and see the friends I made during this special experience in Louisville.”