Six bartenders will soon be traveling to New York City for the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience finale. So who still has a chance to become the 2018 Master of the Manhattan? How were each chosen from a wide, talented field of bartenders? It was all decided during a trip to Kentucky. But the 40 semifinalists weren’t there simply to compete. It was a chance for some of the most skilled cocktail makers in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico to explore what makes Kentucky unique, from its barbecue to its horses and, of course, its signature bourbon. Check out highlights from the trip, and see who advanced to the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience finale.
National judges Jacques Bezuidenhout, Charles Joly and Julie Reiner weren’t in Kentucky strictly to judge the semifinalists. The three acclaimed bartenders prepared cocktails at the welcome event, which took place at one of Louisville’s finest Italian restaurants and bars. After trying these signature Woodford Reserve cocktails, it was clear why these bartenders were qualified to judge the Manhattan Experience. The welcome event also featured a cameo from Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris, who joined the judges in welcoming the semifinalists to Kentucky.
Of course, the trip was about more than exploring the different sides of Kentucky. The bartenders were there to earn a place in the Manhattan Experience finale. For the semifinals, the group was split up, with one competing in the morning and the other in the afternoon. While one group served the judges their Manhattans and original cocktails, the other took a trip to Churchill Downs, the iconic home of the Kentucky Derby, of which Woodford Reserve is the presenting sponsor. Each bartender enjoyed an inside look at the global capital of horse racing, while workers all around them were busy making improvements for the big event that was only a month away. But the winners would have to wait until the end of the trip to hear their names called.
Brown-Forman is the only bourbon distillery to craft its own American white oak barrels. The semifinalists viewed the traditional barrel-making process, an integral part in making Woodford Reserve’s unique whiskey.
The next stop of the day was a big one—the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, Ky. Master distiller Chris Morris, along with assistant master distiller Elizabeth McCall, were there to give the semifinalists a behind-the-scenes look at how the iconic whiskey is made. The bartenders had the opportunity to do more than observe. Morris and McCall led sensory exercises and tastings to help refine and expand their appreciation of bourbon. The biggest highlight was trying new products that haven’t been released to the public: Malt and Barrel Strength Woodford Reserve.
Following the distillery experience, the group visited a renowned horse trainer’s farm. There they enjoyed a delicious barbecue dinner and some quality time with the horses, including a foal born just 24 hours earlier. The evening was about as authentically Kentucky as it gets and made even more special by the fact that this is where the winners were announced. So who will be advancing to the Manhattan Experience finale in New York City?
Frank Magnasco, Emily Mitchell, Leanne Favre, Christopher Enns, Sophia Kim and Jesse Cyr (above, from left) are the finalists in the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience. But every semifinalist would leave Kentucky with new whiskey knowledge and skills. On April 23, the six finalists will compete at the iconic NoMad Bar in New York City, with the winner earning a trip to London and the title of Master of the Manhattan. Check in later to see who wins this incredible prize.