When we agreed to act as a judge at a Manhattan cocktail contest, we had only the scantest details. Arriving at Firebird Tavern, the stylish, wood-clad bar on Monroe Street near the heart of Greektown, we should have immediately loaded up on fries. A burger would have been good, but potatoes make an excellent foundation. Instead, we enjoyed no pleasures of the table and got right down to drinking. It’s not often we make a rookie mistake like this.
Our panel included two other drink aficionados. One was the Michigan rep of Brown Forman, makers of the Woodford Reserve we’d be getting plastered on the rest of the evening. The other was the owner of the Wine Garden shop in St. Clair Shores. Finally, there we were no official certification to speak of, just years of experience earned at the end of the bar.
First our panel tasted a round of five original cocktails prepared by five of Detroit’s most talented bartenders. First up was the Firebird Tavern’s own Michael St. Louis, who prepared something called a Motown Manhattan, rich with muddled allspice and other campfire flavors, and with a super-long finish. Next was Rudy Leon, anointed as the future bartender of the much-anticipated Selden Standard, who prepared a wonderful drink called the Apple-a-Day. We would have been satisfied to nurse that concoction for the rest of the night, but the drinks kept coming. Kaytee Querro of the Oakland Art Novelty Company gave us a Pomander Pyramid Scheme, made with egg whites and given a tracing of a triangle on its downy head. Will Lee of Wright & Company made us a tall, cool drink with strawberry and curry notes, including a dash or two of freeze-dried strawberry atop the ice. Joe Robinson of the Sugar House mixed up an excellent drink, and there things begin to get a bit hazy. A sort of fatigue set in. We kept asking for waters, to cool our palates but also to hydrate us after sipping all these creations.
Luckily, associate publisher Jim Cohen was on hand to bring us a restoring plate of glazed meatballs and artisanal pretzel with craft mustard. We polished it off between drinks and he was kind enough to replenish our snack.
Then we moved on to the Manhattan round, and our careful notes, now lost to the officials, tell the tale. The ingredients were high-toned, with no mere Stock or Gallo vermouth, but heady stuff like Carpano Antica. The grades reflected a bias toward the classical on behalf of the judges. The consensus among us seemed to be that a Manhattan should be a prizefight between the whiskey and the vermouth, with the bitters as a sort of referee. Some of the Manhattans were a bit more complex than we’d prefer, almost a tag-team wrestling match of flavors jumping in and out of the ring, ganging up on one another. Some of the more adventurous versions just didn’t ring true.
By the time the competition was done, Joe Robinson of the Sugar House was named the winner, but by that time we were poured into a car and driven home, 10 drinks down and worse for the wear. We’d be happy to do this again, although our we’d like a basket of fried potatoes up-front next time!