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—Photo courtesy of Adam Larkey

Bartender Speak: Q&A with Allison Widdecombe

The Williams & Graham mixologist talks to 5280 about her approach to bartending and what makes the perfect Manhattan.

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Update: On Monday, January 12, Allison took first place in the national finale for Woodford Reserve Distillery’s 2015 Manhattan Experience. Her winning cocktail—the Proven Perfect—garnered praise from judges for its originality, taste, and overall experience.

Last year, Woodford Reserve Distillery hosted a bartending competition in partnership with Liquor.com in which each bartender shook up a traditional and a twist on the Manhattan. Out of 30 regional winners Allison Widdecombe of Williams & Graham earned a spot in the final six to compete in Manhattan on Monday, January 12. We chatted with Widdecombe about her approach to bartending and what makes the perfect Manhattan.

5280: Tell us about the cocktail that earned you a spot in the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience finals.
Allison Widdecombe: It’s called the Proven Perfect. It’s a riff or variation on the perfect Manhattan. It’s two ounces of Woodford Reserve bourbon, half an ounce of oolong tea infused–ruby port, half ounce of Bittermens Amère Nouvelle orange liqueur. A traditional perfect Manhattan is half sweet vermouth and half dry vermouth. In this case, the ruby port replaces the sweet vermouth and the bitter orange liqueur replaces the dry vermouth. Then I have Fernet Branca acting as the bitters of the drink.

5280: What inspired the Proven Perfect?
AW: I wanted to stay with the idea of some sweet, some dry, bourbon-forward, and a bittering agent. I tried to keep the same kind of formula that a perfect Manhattan has while changing it as far as what those actual agents were.

5280: What is your approach to bartending and balancing classics with creativity?
AW: I definitely like to work with creativity. I work at Williams & Graham and I’m very lucky that I can be creative there all night long. What I like to do is make cocktails for people; I like listening to people. They tell me what they like, what their favorite drinks are, what kind of palate they have. By listening to them I can figure out what to make. That’s really my favorite. That being said, I think classics are very important. I make a lot of them on a regular basis for sure, and they’re great references to have for making simple twists and new ideas. I learn from my guests, I learn from my coworkers, and through reading.

5280: What does the competition entail?
AW: Essentially, we’re going to be making our cocktails—for me, that’s the Proven Perfect—as well as our recipe for our favorite Manhattan. So we’ll be making a classic Manhattan and our cocktail for a handful of judges as well as making small tasters for 200 to 300 people. We’ll be executing the drinks live for the judges and having a little 10-minute presentation for them and then separately doing a side tasting for the guests.

5280: What will you be judged on?
AW: Taste and balance will be a big part of the competition, as well as originality, creativity, and presentation. They’re looking for Manhattan Experience so they want hospitality, great tasting drinks, a great story, and they want a reason why for everything. So, the idea is to encompass all those things and make [the cocktails] taste good.

5280: Which is more challenging: executing a perfect Manhattan or creating a variation on the classic?
AW: They both need a fair amount of explanation. I think it is a challenge to work with making [the judges] my idea of the ideal Manhattan cocktail. There is a kind of way everyone makes it no matter which vermouth or bourbon you’re using. Then you sit down and decide what the right ratio is for this particular Woodford Reserve. It was somewhat challenging to make sure it was just the right recipe without it not being a Manhattan. I definitely have some explanation to give to the judges—especially because I have an infusion in it. My rationalization is important to the cocktail.

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