Last month, Lance Bowman, mixologist/bar director of the Over-the-Rhine Japanese restaurant Kaze, received good news: He had won the Ohio portion of the fifth annual Esquire magazine-sponsored Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience — a bartending competition to find the best Manhattan cocktail recipe in the country — which was held at the 21c Museum Hotel.
The judges — chef Jean-Robert de Cavel, Louisville chef-cum-Food Network star Damaris Phillips and Max Eckenwiler of Ohio Tavern News — unanimously chose Bowman’s The Balancing Act Manhattan over 11 entries from other Ohio bars like Japp’s, The Righteous Room, Columbus’ The Pearl and Cleveland’s Society Lounge.
The nationwide competition took place in 30 cities, and the winners from each city will be whittled down to six finalists, who will compete in the Jan. 13 finale in, where else, Manhattan, N.Y. Bowman won’t find out until mid-December if he won a trip to New York, but in the meantime he’s concocting a version of his award-winning Manhattan for Kaze patrons.
A traditional Manhattan has four simple ingredients: sweet and/or dry vermouth (fortified wine), bourbon, bitters and an alcohol-soaked cherry. Bowman and some of his competitors dissected the ingredients, substituting the vermouth with other wines such as Lillet Blanc, and switching out the commonly used Angostura bitters for an amaro (an Italian digestive liqueur) like Fernet-Branca and Amaro Montenegro, a favorite of Bowman’s.
“The Manhattan is my drink — to drink and to make,” he says. “I’m going to try and stay as true to a Manhattan as possible.”
Bowman used trial and error and kept adding and removing ingredients when making this recipe, i.e. “balancing” the cocktail. And because he knew beforehand who the judges would be, he went into the competition knowing what to expect.
“If there’s mostly chefs on the judges panel, they’re going to want something that’s more balanced and more composed,” Bowman says. “One of my parallels: Making a great cocktail is the same thing as putting together a great plate as a chef. It’s taking all the elements and combining them and composing them into one cohesive drink.”
Bowman, a Cincinnati native, started bartending at 21 years old at now-defunct college bar Big Red’s near the University of Cincinnati. After doing stints at Bar Louie and other local bars, he joined Kaze this winter, a place that has given him more creative freedom to experiment than his other bartending gigs.
“Being behind the bar’s like a big playground,” he says.
Working at Big Red’s became a gateway for Bowman to educate himself about cocktails and start experimenting with his own.
“I remember the first cocktail I ever created. Kind of like a cliché — I was working at a college bar: three kinds of flavored vodka, some lime and Red Bull, which everybody loved. I thought, ‘I could actually create something here.’ Then it’s just a lot of research, reading into a lot of different recipes, reading into the history of recipes. ... There are so many vast pools you can pull from.”
Restaurants in Over-the-Rhine are jumping on the national trend of speakeasy cocktails and Bowman’s long-term goal is to open his own bar like one of his mentors Molly Wellman, who runs Japp’s, Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar and Neons Unplugged. Akin to Wellmann, Bowman is introducing different types of cocktails to Cincinnati imbibers, who are eager for more complex drinks.
“I like seeing the drinking populous getting more adventurous instead of just like, ‘I’ll have a gin and tonic,’” Bowman says. “No, ‘Let me see your cocktail list.’ That’s your individual stamp. All of my cocktail menus are a little piece of me, and I want to give somebody an experience and give them something they’ll enjoy, including the show of making a drink. That’s always part of it, too.”
Visit Kaze to try Bowman’s Manhattan or make it at home, prepared like a traditional Manhattan — stirred over ice and strained — with the following recipe:
The Balancing Act Manhattan
2 oz. Woodford Reserve bourbon
1/2 oz. Amaro Montenegro
1/2 oz. Lillet Blanc
3/4 oz. Cocchi Barolo Chinato
1/4 oz. Tempus Fugit Liqueur de Violettes
8 drops Bittermens Elemakule Tiki bitters
4 drops mulled orange and chamomile bitters
2 cherries, soaked in Zucca liqueur and lemon, for garnish