This year for my birthday, Rosemary and I went on a trip on the American Queen for their Civil War cruise. The cruise started in Chattanooga, Tennessee and ended eight days later in Memphis, Tennessee, cruising the Tennessee, Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers. While onboard, I kept with my tradition of judging the best Manhattan on the boat.
The American Queen has four bars and four bartenders. There is the Captain’s Bar on the first deck with Ronald keeping bar there. There is the Engine Room Bar on the second deck with Steph, the Front Porch Bar with Brian and the Sun Deck Bar with Victoria. The last time we were on board, Ronald won the contest but he was the only bartender from the last trip still on board. I spent several days going to each bar and sampling the Manhattans from each bartender. They are all very talented mixologists. The Manhattans were all excellent. I talked to the Bar Manager, Michael, and arranged for a blind tasting on the final night of the cruise. I went to the smoking area just outside of the Engine Room Bar and all four bartenders made what each considered their best Manhattan. They were brought out to me one at a time in no particular order. Another passenger, also a Manhattan fan, joined me and we judged the Manhattans.
In my opinion, a good Manhattan has to be whiskey forward. There needs to be a taste of the Vermouth, but it should not dominate the drink. The bitters need to be tasted, but not overpowering. I like a cherry as the garnish. I don’t mind a little orange, but not too much. If I want orange flavor, I will drink an Old Fashioned cocktail. It takes talent to get the balance correct and make that outstanding Manhattan.
After we decided on the winner, we found out what ingredients they used to make their cocktails. Ronald used Old Grand-Dad Bonded and some cognac as the alcohol. Martini & Rossi vermouth was all they had on board so all of the drinks had that in the cocktail. Ronald also used some orange bitters and a twist of orange, but did not drop the zest in the drink and garnished it with a cherry. Steph used Old Grand-Dad Bonded and a very small twist of orange zest but also tossed it after squeezing the oils from the peel, garnished with a cherry. Brian used Old Forester 100 proof, no orange at all and garnished with a cherry. Victoria used Bulleit Rye and Old Grand-Dad as the spirits, a cherry garnish and very little bitters. All four bartenders stirred their Manhattans and served them up.
It was a very tough decision. Ronald’s was the sweetest of the four. Victoria’s was very herbal from the rye. Steph’s was very well balanced with just the right amount of orange. Too much orange can dominate the flavor. Brian’s was the perfect balance of whiskey and Vermouth. In the end, we picked Brian’s Manhattan as the best onboard. It was a narrow victory. We liked all four and in the end, we were impressed with Brian’s skill at getting the balance perfect. The other three Manhattans were too close to call as the next best.
The American Queen has very talented people working behind the bars. The selection of whiskeys is excellent. I suspected that at least one of the bartenders would have used Blanton’s or Kentucky Spirit in their Manhattan and was very surprised with their whiskey choices. In the end, it was Brian’s skill at getting the balance right. I also think that he did not over-stir the cocktail, which would weaken the flavor of the whiskey. Congratulations Brian for a job well done. The competition was tight and it was a well-earned victory.
Photos Courtesy of Michael Veach and Rosemary Miller