Joan King, who has worked at Metropolitan Grill as a server for some 20 years, doesn't usually get behind the bar, but when it came time to "invent" a Manhattan for a contest showcasing the Met's custom-blended bourbon (from Woodford Reserve), she knew what she needed: Carpano Antica, considered the king of Italian vermouths and recently availalbe in the US.
"There are too many frou-frou drinks," she said, flicking a dash of cherry bitters and a couple of dashes of Fee orange bitters into the shaker. The cocktail glass was already chilled, but Joan tossed in a few ice cubes and a splash of water to chill it further. Two and a half ounces of Woodford, half an ounce of vermouth, stirred (never shaken), poured into a green-stemmed glass and garnished with a Rainier cherry soaked in Maraschino liqueur.
It was the least complicated (and tastiest) of the seven entries from the bar staff in the Met's Manhattan taste-off. The Woodford Reserve comes from Kentucky, of course; it's the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. It's only been made since 1996, when drinks giant Brown Forman refurbished a century-old distillery and created a new small-batch luxury brand (every bottle is numbered, for starters). The folks at the Met wanted something even more distinctive, though, a new signature cocktail. No lightweight G&T, nothing spritzy or festooned with hibiscus. The Met is a classic steakhouse where the spirit of choice is all-American bourbon.
So the Met sent a delegation to Versailles, Kentucky, to meet with Woodford's master distiller and taste eight unblended, distinctively different barrel samples. The Met's tasters picked four barrels with more robust flavors (woody notes like vanilla, butterscotch, spice notes of clove and anise, rather than Woodford Reserve's commercial profile, which tends more toward lighter notes ofheather and peach). From those barrels came six potential blends, one of which--spicy, woodsy--was selected to be the Met's own.
Seven servers and bartenders entered the Manhattan contest (the prize: $300) and a panel of outside tasters was brought in to make the final decision. Cornichon picked Number 5, Joan's, which retained the essence of the Manhattan (powerful bourbon, with the vermouth providing a touch of sweetness, orange for aroma, cherry for garnish.
The Met started selling Joan's winning Manhattan this weekend. Icy and delicious, it's $15.
Manhattan contestants (l to r) Derek Knoll, Joan King, Marla Ford, Rob Nokes, Marcus McQuare, Marilyn Hetchler.