Friday, November 12, 2010

Cocktail Name Creep And Other Sins.

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?


Doctor Tarr said...

At least it's a change from calling anything in stemware a "martini".

Wade said...

The finals of this same event were in Houston this week on Monday. I was planning on attending, but could not make it. I knew a couple of bartenders in the finals and had tasted their recipes. A bartender from Branchwater Tavern did stir his Manhattan - using a self made charred oak stir stick. I don't know who Woodford used for judges here, but I do think that presentation has a lot to do selection. What you tasted was the result of preliminary rounds already narrowing down field. Those bourbon forward recipe probably never made initial cut.

Chuck said...

I still sadly recall going to a "Martini Bar" at a party once and asking for a martini... "What kind?" "Oh, you know, just a regular one." Blank stare.

It turned out the "martini bar" didn't have any gin.

lafew said...

Unfortunately, for some, vodka has resplaced gin as an ingredient of choice in the martini. Of course, a properly prepared gimlet seems tough to find. Mr. Cowdery, I agree! I like Gin! Any thoughts on the best gimlet in Chicago?

Of course, the Grey Goose has landed in most martinis in Chicago. After to listening to the comments, one has to wonder about the evolution of the old fashioned. Has it gone fruity?

Is there a brilliant bartender with the right bourbon convince Chicagoans how an old fashion is done for people like us? Mr. Cowdery, any nominees?

Can we encourage those at the Whiskey Fest cocktail table to put up and show off to the skeptical? Perhaps, there is a sweet mash that can be revived and more efficiently produced to demonstrate how it can be done.

I am glad for some that Long Island Ice Tea is less favored; PC is important and too many customers don't realize the challenge bars face if they don't use less expensive ingredients to make more complicated cocktails. Yet, if they want quality, it should come at a premium. Cheers.

erik.ellestad said...

After judging a couple cocktail competitions here in San Francisco, where the featured ingredient was lost in most drinks, I have argued that part of the judging, when using a featured or sponsoring spirit, should include how well the spirit in question shines in the drink.

I think something like this criteria is now included in the official contests sponsored by the San Francisco Bartenders' Guild.

I would like to see that criteria taken up more widely.