Earlier this week Woodford Reserve and Esquire went in search of the best Manhattan in L.A. and pitted local bartenders against one another. Each contestant had to dream up their own variation of the beloved brown booze classic and madly mixed their Woodford Reserve based drinks with unusual ingredients like Korean plum extract and pumpkin liqueur for the judges which included Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris.
But it was Justin Fix of Blind Barber in Culver City who snagged the title of Master of the Manhattan in L.A. with his simple twist of Greenbar Grand Poppy liqueur and Chinese bitters. “As far as a Manhattan, you can’t diverge too far from the classics,” he said. “I just tweaked the elements and added a sense of seasonal component to it.”
And I agree, simple is better when you’re talking about my favorite cocktail. But to pick up some pointers, I asked the contestants which components they think are necessary to make the best Manhattan. (For an actual photo tutorial on how to make the perfect Manhattan, check out this lesson by the legendary Sam Ross of Comme Ca and NYC’s Milk & Honey.)
➊ Use good ice: According to Hakkasan Beverly Hills’ Ken Baranda, “With a Manhattan, and any cocktail, you always have to look at ice as a factor because a high percentage is going to be water. So the type of ice you’re using is one of the most important things in a Manhattan. What’s going to make one Manhattan different from another? It’s going to be how you control dilution, chill it and serve it.
“At home you can just take little metallic baking pans, 4 inches high and just fill it up with some nice filtered water. And once that’s done you take an ice pick. You gotta be careful though. You gotta know how to use these things. But then you basically have Kold Draft. You don’t want anything smaller than an inch in diameter. Or you can just get some Tovolo ice molds.”
➋ Quality spirit is a must: Marcos Menendez of Oldfield’s Liquor Room is all about quality booze, favoring Whistle Pig and Templeton rye for his Manhattans. “I think the most important thing is a good spirit base because it’s the largest component in the cocktail and it’s the one that’s going to come through the most. Quality spirit. Don’t just use any rye that you can find.”
➌ Forecast: Chilly: Muddy Leek’s Sara Kay Godot says, “Keep it super cold. So, glasses chilled. I always say stir instead of shake because when you shake you bruise your spirits. And for stirring it’s not so much the length as it is the speed so you want to get a good whip like you’re making homemade whipped cream.”
➍ Taste test: “Always taste test your drink,” suggests Brad Fry from Roxanne’s in Long Beach. “Everyone has a different palate. Until you know if you want it stronger or sweeter...always taste your drinks. The balance of the cocktail is the most important thing.”
➎ Do it your way: Formosa Cafe’s Alex Goode pooh-poohs proportions. “Forget proportions, make what you like. I like mine with a half ounce of sweet vermouth. Some people like a full ounce of vermouth. If you make something that you would like to drink yourself, chances are your guests are going to enjoy it just as much.”
➏ Never drink alone: And according to the Manhattan master Justin Fix, “a good cocktail doesn’t taste good unless you have good company to drink it with. I don’t care which spirit or mixer you use, if you don’t have good conversation or good people to enjoy that with, why tip the glass back?”
Justin will now go on to compete with 30 bartenders from cities around the U.S., with six ultimately selected for the Manhattan Experience finale in New York this January.
Here’s his winning recipe for your drinking pleasure.
Lower East Side
2 oz. Woodford Reserve
3/4 oz. Grand Poppy liqueur
3/4 oz. Carpano Antica vermouth
1 black cherry and orange peel stirred with cocktail.
2 dashes of Chinese bitters
Stir all ingredients with ice; serve chilled in a coupe glass.