How the Manhattan Experience Still Thrived in 2020

Take a look inside the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience to see how they dramatically and amazingly pivoted during 2020.

How to Host a Virtual Cocktail Competition

Even in a typical year, there’s more to the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience than finding the bartender with the best Manhattan recipe. It’s an opportunity for bartenders across the country to come together to connect, learn and compete. Thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of people behind the scenes, the 2020 Manhattan Experience was able to preserve what makes it so memorable and impactful to everyone involved. Of course, they had to shake up the formula in 2020, starting long before the finale event. 

Since the competitors couldn’t gather at regional events and it wasn’t safe for finalists to travel to the Woodford Reserve distillery, and Woodford Reserve hosted a series of virtual events to replicate the opportunities for education and camaraderie among the competitors. These included educational sessions with the judges, brand ambassadors and distillers at Woodford Reserve, with behind the scenes looks at the production of whiskey, advice from previous winners, panels with industry leaders and more. 

Did all of this make the competition feel normal? Of course not. But it did allow bartenders to connect when opportunities to do so were increasingly difficult to find. The 2020 Manhattan Experience was shaping up to be uniquely memorable, but the finale event would present even more difficulties—and chances to do something new and amazing. 

Inside the Finale

How do you evaluate a cocktail when you can’t be in the same room as the bartender fixing the drink? That was the challenge facing the judges of the Manhattan Experience. Julie Reiner invited Jacques Bezuidenhout (who launched Forgery and Wildhawk in San Francisco) and Charles Joly (the beverage director of The Aviary in Chicago and the chief mixologist and founder of The Drawing Room) to her bar in Brooklyn, Clover Club, to remotely judge the finale event. 

At Clover Club, they set up a massive television screen on the bar to watch the finalists prepare and present their cocktails. There were also cameras on the judges, who were sipping the relevant drinks at the same time, so the finalists didn’t feel as though they were presenting their recipes to the void. This did a great job at replicating the give-and-take aspect of previous finales for the Manhattan Experience.

The Manhattan Experience
Is More Important
Than Ever

After a long journey for the competitors and an unprecedented, difficult run for the industry, being able to come together, even virtually, was fantastic.”

- Charles Joly

In terms of replicating the actual recipes being evaluated, two great New York City bartenders were brought in to help. Leo DeGroff (of Liquid Productions) and Melissa Markert used their expertise and experience in craft cocktails and large-scale event production to make all 74 cocktails the judges needed to evaluate. 

This rigorous process made it so there was no debate when it came time to announce the 2020 Master of the Manhattan. Jarrett Holborough earned the prestigious title and $10,000 grand prize for his excellent cocktails and performance. The Atlanta bartender’s twist on the Manhattan, Bourbon’s Mad Scientist, was a master class in how to highlight the spirit at the center of the recipe. It was a well-deserved win, especially considering that he was able to impress the judges from hundreds of miles away. 

Meet the Finalists

Jarrett Holborough, however, wasn’t the only bartender to rise to the challenge in the midst of such a difficult year. As a result, it seemed wrong not to celebrate the bartenders who did an incredible job. That’s why Woodford Reserve decided to give all the finalists a $2,000 prize and invite them to its distillery in Louisville this fall. Take a look at their mouthwatering recipes to see why they deserve such a generous reward.