On Monday I was one of the judges at a fun event at The Violet Hour here in Chicago. It was a competition among six local bartenders to make a unique manhattan recipe using Woodford Reserve bourbon and any other ingredients of their choice. The competition is sponsored by Woodford Reserve, Esquire Magazine, and Akira (a fashion store). Monday's Chicago winner will go on to a finals competition in New York.
The event was fun and all of the people there were very nice. I watched each bartender prepare his or her drink, tasted each, and scored them according to the criteria given. They all tasted pretty good and were well and professionally made, but I have a philosophical objection to all of them.
I accept that drink creation is a very free and easy art form but to me, the baseline for a manhattan is that the whiskey should dominate. Although every drink on Monday night included Woodford Reserve bourbon, you could barely taste it in any of them. By 'dominate' I mean most of the drink, by volume, should be whiskey. That was not the case in any of Monday's recipes.
On TV's Iron Chef, one of the judging criteria is how well the dish expresses the theme ingredient. That was not one of the criteria on Monday. Good thing because had it been, everyone would have scored zero.
It has always been said that Americans like drinks that have a simple, sweet and (usually) fruity taste. In that regard the contestants Monday were doing what they're supposed to do, pleasing their customers. That's all well and good but for me, when I order a manhattan I want to taste the whiskey and if I can't, I'll be disappointed.
One of my fellow judges Monday was Paul McGee, bartender at The Whistler (2421 N Milwaukee Ave.), who pointed out that the manhattan, like the martini and other drinks whose ingredients all contain alcohol, is supposed to be stirred, not shaken. All of Monday's contestants shook. We asked one of them and, again, customer preference ("they like the show") was the explanation. Traditionally, the manhattan may be served straight up or on the rocks. No one Monday risked an on-the-rocks presentation either.
I suppose when 'creativity' is one of the criteria it is natural to veer away from tradition, but is nothing sacred?