The next time you visit your favorite bar, ask yourself one thing before you order a cocktail. Are you a purist or a radical?
Not sure? Think about how you like your Manhattan. Do you prefer a classic interpretation that’s true in form and free from influence or do you enjoy an innovative variation?
Most bartenders in Miami’s flush cocktail community support the freedom to deviate from original pre-Prohibition recipes. With a combination of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters, the Manhattan represents an early definition of a cocktail in general and has maintained a high level of respect since the late 1800s.
The simplicity of the Manhattan lends itself to an opportunity for creativity that is hard for modern mixologists to resist. Bartenders, like most artists, enjoy complicating things with experimental concepts based on, well, just about anything.
One of the first departures from the norm was to replace straight rye whiskey with its cousin, bourbon, for a subtle sweetness. And that’s the route many top mixologists take today.
Woodford Reserve, a super-premium small batch bourbon, and Esquire magazine challenge bartenders across the country each year to put their twist on the classic Manhattan cocktail. The bourbon’s distinct flavor notes and smoothness allow for modifications that complement and contrast with ease.
Nick Nistico, the winner of the third annual “Manhattan Experience” in Miami in mid-October, stood out with a recipe that combines a whole lot of bourbon, a cognac-based liqueur, ginger syrup, sweet vermouth and two different kinds of bitters that add a powerful citrus essence to the nose.
Nistico is relatively new to the cocktail scene and, while he respects the traditions of his bartending forefathers, he’s more inclined to experiment in order to make a drink “his.”
Served up with a refreshing orange oil garnish that almost fills the room, this drink and Nistico will represent Miami at the finals in New York in January 2012.
“When a variation of a classic is done well, it’s great,” said Nistico, who bartends at Mojo Lounge in Fort Lauderdale. “It’s important for me, however, to put a spin on things. It’s the drive that keeps me going behind the bar.”
Even the master distiller of Woodford Reserve likes to get playful. Instead of the conventional dark and sweet composition of the classic, Chris Morris opts for light and sweet by adding Limocello, orange bitters and a twist of lemon.
Morris says the innovative spirit in general is a reaction to two decades of effortless vodka drinks that saturated the market.
Ezra Pattek is slightly more old school. He’s a bartender at Sra. Martinez in the Design District and he sits on the board of the local chapter of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG). Through his involvement with the USBG, which is the largest network of professional bartenders, Pattek and his colleagues foster Miami’s tight-knit community of masterful mixologists.
Pattek won the Woodford semifinals in Miami in 2010 and generally prefers the classics the way they’re intended to be.
“The culture has evolved so much that I’m now more open to the opportunity to try new things. Any time I have the opportunity to walk into a bar where a bartender knows how to create a variation on a classic, I will definitely go,” said Pattek.
And so should you. No matter which school of thought you come from, there’s a bartender who will make it happen for you in Miami. You just have to know what you want and how to ask for it.
Meet Nick at Mojo Lounge, 4140 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale; 954-586-4443
Go classic with Ezra at Sra. Martinez, 4000 NE 2nd Ave., Miami; 305-573-5474