Six creative and highly skilled bartenders arrived at The NoMad Bar in New York City to settle a question: Who would become the 2019 Master of the Manhattan? The bartenders prepared their Manhattans and original recipes, explaining the inspiration and reasoning behind each choice. Judges Jacques Bezuidenhout, Charles Joly and Julie Reiner had a difficult decision, but after much deliberation, they announced that Sophia Kim of Richmond was the winner.
But you don’t win the Manhattan Experience in a night. Over the course of several months, you need to impress the judges at regional competitions and the semifinals in Kentucky to even punch a ticket to the finals. For Kim, the journey goes back even further.
This was Kim’s third year competing in the Manhattan Experience. And you can chart her growth as a bartender by her performance year-by-year.
“The first time I entered was actually in the first year I started cocktail bartending. I was completely shocked when I won my regional event,” says Kim. “When I got to Louisville for the semifinals, it was like entering a new world. There was this community of bartenders who all seemed to know each other.”
Over the course of her three years participating in the competition, Kim saw firsthand how the Manhattan Experience helps build a network of bartenders around the world, with competitors coming from as far as Canada, Puerto Rico and Australia to bond over great whiskey in Kentucky. Even though Kim didn’t advance to the finals that first year, she held on to that ongoing sense of camaraderie when the Manhattan Experience started the following year.
“I applied the second year because I was inspired by what I saw in Louisville,” says Kim. “I learned so much from just being there, so I took it as a personal challenge to do better the next year, to beat myself.”
She rose to the challenge and advanced to the finals that year. This gave her the chance to travel to New York City and take her craft to The NoMad Bar. But being at such an iconic venue also increases the pressure.
“The opportunity to get behind the bar at The NoMad is a prize in and of itself,” says Kim. “Having the competition there just makes it extra special. But I immediately had a list of things I knew I could have done better, so I wasn’t too surprised that I didn’t win.”
Rather than becoming discouraged by the result, Kim learned from it. “I watched the other competitors and noticed how at ease they were,” she says. “They were all so comfortable and had their own style.”
The drinks that Kim made in this year’s Manhattan Experience show off her distinct viewpoint. The Bubblegum Julep blends Woodford Reserve bourbon and a house-made strawberry-citrus oleo saccharum to create a stunningly original recipe. And Kim wouldn’t have been able to think of it if she hadn’t participated in the Manhattan Experience before.
“The Bubblegum Julep was inspired by a story Elizabeth McCall (the assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve) told during the distillery trip the year before. When she first started at Woodford Reserve, she was tasting with master distiller Chris Morris. He asked her what she tasted in the bourbon and she responded, ‘This might be a little weird, but I taste notes of bubble gum, specifically bubble tape.’ Morris agreed it was a little strange, but that doesn’t mean she was wrong.”
That’s the great thing about bourbon as complex as Woodford Reserve. It features a variety of flavors, and everyone who tries it might notice something different. Kim zeroed in on one flavor, bubblegum, and designed a recipe around it. “The point of this drink is to show off bourbon’s versatility,” she says. “It also demonstrates that you taste what you know. Your palate is based around your life experiences.”Continue to 5 of 8 below.
The Bubblegum Julep, and the thinking that led to it, is the culmination of three years in the Manhattan Experience. Kim presented it in a captivating and personable way, which is all the more impressive considering that she had the difficult task of going first. It’s a good thing that Kim brought her A-game, since the bartenders who followed her each gave a compelling performance and made delicious drinks.
Canada had a strong showing, with Edmonton’s James Grant and Kelowna, British Columbia’s Jared Schmidt both making excellent, and very different, Manhattans. Inspired by cocktail legend Salvatore Calebrese’s Breakfast Martini, Grant added a little orange marmalade to make the classic cocktail better suited for morning or at least brunch. Schmidt showed off his technical prowess with his subtle and delicious Trip to Manhattan.
Anaheim’s Robert Adamson and San Francisco’s Caleb Kimbley both represented California well with especially beautiful cocktails. Adamson got some style points by bringing his own Tiki mugs for his original recipe, the Hawaiian Holiday. Kimbley used a sidecar for his Manhattan, which wasn’t just an aesthetic choice; it helps counteract dilution so that the last sip is as good as the first.
Nashville’s Zachary Helton closed out the competition on a high note. His original recipe, the Nashville Hot, was made to be paired with a Nashville staple: hot chicken. Since milk is said to be the only way to cool down after a bite, he combined Woodford Reserve bourbon with a homemade English milk punch cordial. He also gave the judges a side of crispy chicken skin with Nashville hot chicken spices, in case they wanted to see if the drink really worked as a cooling agent.
Every bartender made a strong case for becoming the next Master of the Manhattan, but no one had any objection when Kim was announced as the winner. In fact, all the other finalists cheered her on. It’s just part of the culture around the Manhattan Experience.
“The community of people that this competition creates is remarkable,” says Kim. “Every year, the group that comes together is so supportive. No one is trying to undercut other bartenders or get ahead by stepping on someone else. Everyone’s sharing ideas and supporting each other.”
And the other finalists weren’t the only people thrilled by Kim’s victory. The women in attendance took special pride in the only female finalist winning it all. “I had women coming up to me after the competition and telling me that it inspired them,” she says. “That’s something I will remember for a long time.”
It was an incredible moment for Kim, but it should also serve as a lesson for all the bartenders who entered the Manhattan Experience. Not winning it all isn’t a failure—it’s the best way to prep for the 2020 Manhattan Experience.