A couple of semifinalists enjoy a Manhattan on the eve of the competition.
Only Good Vibes from the Start
Each competitor showcased a different expression in their recipe, demonstrating the breadth and quality of Woodford Reserve. But more than anything, the first night was for the judges and competitors to get to know one another, even making a few industry connections.
“It was just a lovely group of bartenders who were excited to compete together,” says Bezuidenhout. “They all wanted to learn, and they all brought some special energy and represented themselves and their bars in a great way.”
This year’s bartenders brought their best to Kentucky.
Not a Bad Manhattan in Sight
That special energy was visible as the competitors presented their cocktails the following day. This year’s batch of Manhattans showed an unprecedented level of technical skill and detail. The judges were impressed that the bartenders didn’t try to radically change the classic recipe but presented the best possible version with subtle, thoughtful tweaks.
The high quality was partly due to experience. Richmond, Va.’s Sophia Kim is competing in her third Manhattan Experience, and even advanced to the finals last year, so she has had plenty of time to think about what makes a Manhattan special.
“The key will always be the base spirit. If you keep it simple, you can really let the bourbon, rye or whiskey shine,” says Kim.
There’s a reason so many bartenders keep coming back to the Manhattan Experience.
The Woodford Family Keeps Growing
The fact that so many bartenders return to the competition year-after-year speaks to how much they get out of the experience—and how they feel about Woodford Reserve. Zachary Helton, another three-time competitor, speaks about how Woodford treats bartenders.
“Woodford Reserve made me feel like a member of their small family,” says Helton. “Being able to call their distillers friends is true Southern hospitality.”
By the end of the day, every semifinalist had assembled their Manhattan and original cocktail for the judges. The competition was so tight that the judges needed the night to decide who would take the sixth and final spot in the finals.
Just another stunning day at the Woodford distillery
The Distillery Lives Up to the Hype
The Woodford Reserve distillery is about an hour away from Louisville, but it’s an exceptionally beautiful drive through horse country. Touring the distillery was a major highlight for everyone who went, from the competitors to the judges.
“The Woodford distillery is such a beautiful property,” says Reiner. “This year, we had incredible weather and were able to have lunch outside, which was a real treat for those of us who were coming from colder locations.”
The semifinalists were taken through every step of the process.
A Walk Through Bourbon History
Calgary’s James Grant was similarly struck by Woodford Reserve distillery. “It’s truly one of the most important sites in bourbon history, and getting to walk through the stillhouse and rickhouses was a real joy,” he says.
Master Distiller Chris Morris and Assistant Master Distiller Elizabeth McCall give the bartenders a behind-the-scenes look at Woodford Reserve.
Bourbon Masters Share their Secrets
But the group wasn’t just there to admire the scenery. Woodford Reserve Master Distiller Chris Morris gave the bartenders an in-depth education in how to make bourbon. This was followed by a sensory tasting led by assistant master distiller Elizabeth McCall.
“Chris Morris and Elizabeth McCall are such inspiring and captivating people. They are both excellent storytellers and so intimately familiar with every step of the creation of Woodford Reserve,” says Vancouver’s Jared Schmidt. “When you get to see behind the curtain and then meet the people who help make a brand what it is, that’s the most interesting part of the experience.”
Yes, this is a necessary part of making good bourbon.
The Barrels Go Up in Flames
The flashiest moment was getting to watch a live barrel toasting. This is an essential part of Woodford’s process, and there’s an exact science to it. You need to char each barrel long enough to release sweet aromatics, but doing so too long will take away the vanilla character people expect from Woodford Reserve.
Zachary Helton, Sophia Kim, Jared Schmidt, James Grant, Caleb Kimbley and Robert Adamson, from left
After a full day making themselves at home at the Woodford distillery, it was time to find out who would be advancing to the next round. The finalists are Robert Adamson, James Grant, Zachary Helton, Sophia Kim, Caleb Kimbley and Jared Schmidt.
One of these six bartenders will be the 2019 Master of the Manhattan. But none of the other semifinalists showed any hard feelings—just the opposite, since the announcement was followed by a massive group hug. Charles Joly has an idea why everyone was feeling so positive.
“At the end of three days together in Louisville, everyone takes away so much,” Joly says. “Win or lose, you end up with 40 new friends, a fantastic visit to bourbon country and an immersive dive into all things whiskey.”