The Surprising Place You Can Drink The Best Manhattan In America

Photographed by Alice Gao.
When it comes to classic cocktails, perhaps none feels more, well, classic than the Manhattan. There's a reason this drink has stood the test of time: Not only is it delicious, complex, and well balanced, but those qualities can be obtained easily, using little more than rye or bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters. However, making the best Manhattan in the country — a title awarded this week by Woodford Reserve bourbon — doesn't come quite so easy.
At the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience, Allison Widdecombe, of Denver's Williams & Graham, took top honors with her splendid variation, the Proven Perfect. What's behind "America's best Manhattan"? Bourbon, of course, but that's where the obvious similarities between Widdecombe’s winning version and the classic end. While a traditional perfect Manhattan splits sweet and dry vermouths, Widdecombe swapped in, respectively, oolong-tea-steeped ruby port and cardamom-infused Amère Nouvelle, an herbal orange French liqueur. She also nixed the traditional bitters, choosing instead to use the highly biting, herbaceous liqueur Fernet-Branca. The result: a cocktail that's drier than your standard Manhattan, but just as sippable and balanced, with added spice and warmth.
With a cocktail so nuanced, it's no surprise Widdecombe says it wasn’t a quick path to the final recipe. "There are so many possible variations [when] you are doing an infusion, which can be tricky and exacting," she says. "Then, there's also the fact that not every oolong tea is created equal — neither is every port wine. After much deliberation, timing, measuring, and tasting, I ended up with my final recipe. And then, I remade it over and over again."
A laborious process, but the 32-year-old bartender is used to going the extra mile: She's a 15-year veteran of the food-service industry — not only in Denver, but across the world. Originally hailing from Hawaii, Widdecombe lived and traveled throughout Europe and South America for six years, learning food and drink from different cultural perspectives. From there, she returned to her home state, where she spent time behind the bar making "fancy tropical cocktails and studying Asian and Pacific foods and flavors." Based in Denver for the past three years, Widdecombe credits this global education for her winning whiskey cocktail. "People everywhere are hungry for more knowledge about food and drink, as we travel more and more, as we watch more shows about cooking, about drinking, and about history," Widdecombe says.
Photographed by Nina Westervelt.
To win the top honors, she beat out nearly 500 entrants and, in the finals, bested five other competitors — all male. (Last year’s winning Manhattan came from a woman bartender, too, as did 2012's.)
The Proven Perfect is being served up at Williams & Graham as of Thursday — great, if you live in Denver. For those who don't, she's graciously provided us the recipe so you can try creating the crowned cocktail at home.
Don't have the time for infusions? Widdecombe says you can skip them and use the spirits as is — just note that you won't end up with the same depth of flavor found in the award winner. (You can also substitute Amaro CioCiaro, Bigallet China-China Amer, or any type of bitter-orange liqueur in place of the Amère Nouvelle.) If you don't have Fernet-Branca handy, now's the time to add the famed Italian amaro to your bar cart. The good news here is the liqueur's a classic-cocktail staple, so if you ever get serious about home mixing, you'll find yourself turning to it again and again.
Proven Perfect
2 oz Woodford Reserve bourbon
1/2 oz oolong-tea-infused ruby port
1/2 oz cardamom-infused Amère Nouvelle
1/2 bar spoon Fernet-Branca
Combine ingredients over ice in a mixing glass and stir. Strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish by twisting a lemon peel over the finished drink to release the citrus's oils.

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