Manhattan project: Asheville Bar Wars returns

MIX IT UP: Cucina 24 bartender Donnie Pratt won last year's Asheville Bar Wars Final Mix Off with his concoction of Drambuie, homemade sweet vermouth, scotch, rum and bitters. The 2016 event highlights the Manhattan cocktail.
MIX IT UP: Cucina 24 bartender Donnie Pratt won last year's Asheville Bar Wars Final Mix Off with his concoction of Drambuie, homemade sweet vermouth, scotch, rum and bitters. The 2016 event highlights the Manhattan cocktail. Photo by Jim Donohoo

Just in time for Repeal Day, Asheville Bar Wars is back. The third annual citywide cocktail competition will focus on the Manhattan. Where the two preceding events spotlighted smashes and “Icelandic-themed drinks,” this year’s version takes aim at a more historic and innovative beverage. The boozy blend of vermouth, whiskey and bitters is a classic that historian and author Philip Greene, this year’s Bar Wars featured guest, says earned its place in history by being the first modern cocktail.

“It’s a drink that I have always revered, because it was sort of a game-changer when it comes to cocktail history,” says Greene. “Throughout the course of the 19th century, cocktails were pretty static. You had juleps and smashes and cobblers, but the basic cocktail was defined in 1806 as spirits of any kind plus sugar, water and bitters, which is basically the Old Fashioned. You did have the sour, that came about in the late 1850s and ’60s, but it wasn’t until the 1870s that some genius — probably in New York — decided to incorporate vermouth.”

First imported into the U.S. in the 1840s, vermouth didn’t immediately find its way into a cocktail. “Somewhere in the 1870s,” Greene explains, “somebody said, ‘Let’s add vermouth to a whiskey cocktail,’ and bam! The Manhattan was born, and bartenders everywhere thought, ‘This is great, now let’s add gin!’ And that became the Martinez or the martini — depending on what evolutionary theory you believe in — and then they tried scotch, and you have the Rob Roy. You just had all these amazing drinks that came out of that basic trinity of spirit, vermouth and bitters.”

Greene will be a judge for the competition’s Final Mix Off; he’ll also host a cocktail event and seminar on Repeal Day (Dec. 5, marking the anniversary of the end of Prohibition) about the Manhattan’s history and heritage. A descendant of New Orleans’ famed Peychaud family, he’s now the brand ambassador for Peychaud’s bitters, the Hemingway Rum Co. and Papa’s Pilar rum, and the author of To Have and Have Another: A Hemingway Cocktail Companion and The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail. As if all that were not enough, Greene is also a columnist for The Daily Beast and one of the founders of The Museum of the American Cocktail in New Orleans.

Brooklyn strikes back

This year’s Bar Wars kicked off Nov. 26 and runs through Monday, Dec. 5 (see sidebar, “Other Bar Wars Events”); it’s sponsored by Hyatt Place, Woodford Reserve, William Grant & Sons, Conniption gin and Haus Alpenz. Participating bars include The Montford Rooftop Bar, the Smoky Park Supper Club, MG Road, Nightbell, Salvage Station, Sovereign Remedies, The Imperial Life and Post 70.

At the first bar they visit, participants will receive a map that will guide them to the competing venues. Each one will be serving its take on the Manhattan, and imbibers will receive a stamp. After three stamps, they’ll be allowed to vote for the winner. The 10-day event kicked off Nov. 26; people’s choice voting runs through Friday, Dec. 2; and the Final Mix Off, pitting the top four bars against one another, will be held Sunday, Dec. 4, at the Salvage Station.

With so much latitude, there’s tremendous potential for bartenders to stretch the cocktail’s style. “The Manhattan was the face that launched a thousand drinks — and a whole new era of mixing drinks that include vermouth,” notes Greene. “There’s also a whole modern school of Manhattan-inspired drinks, including the Brooklyn.” The latter cocktail, which typically features Canadian (aka rye) whiskey, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur and Amer Picon or bitters, was invented in 1908, says Greene.

“From that, in the last 15 or 20 years, you’ve had all these creative bartenders in New York, working at Milk & Honey and Employees Only and Death & Co. and places like that, who were riffing on the Brooklyn and creating their own drinks, like the Greenpoint and the Red Hook. So you have that whole segment to trace as well when you’re looking at what came from the Manhattan.”

For an entertaining look at what a Manhattan is, view this short video from Spirit Savvy. 

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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com

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