Post image for theSpeakista’s Manhattan Cocktail Challenge – Round #1: The Star Lounge (Ritz-Carlton) vs. The Clover Club

theSpeakista’s Manhattan Cocktail Challenge – Round #1: The Star Lounge (Ritz-Carlton) vs. The Clover Club

by KeithP on November 3, 2010

We were back at it again last night hitting an interesting twist and turn on our ride down Manhattan Cocktail Challenge lane.  Coming off a rather un-thrilling grouping our first go at this it was great to experience two solid contestants go at it and also encounter an interesting contrast between the two “styles” of establishments and in the end it all came down to a nail biting finish.  First up was the Star Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton (Central Park) followed by The Clover Club in Brooklyn.  The Godfather and I were joined by CM, a true lover of all things drink and spirits related.  We started our evening at the Star Lounge.

Note:  Before I get into a full description of the evening, the drinks and the scores I wanted to discuss an interesting twist that we encountered and our on the spot resolution.  As you will recall the rules of the challenge are fairly straightforward, basically order a “bartenders choice” Manhattan without specifying much beyond that it needs to be a Manhattan, drink it, comment on it and score it.  Pretty simple, right?  Well, no.  At The Clover Club last night we encountered a problem (as problems go, this isn’t a bad one to have in my book) to this simple plan in that in specifying our bartender’s choice form of Manhattan we were presented with two different riffs on a Manhattan but not a Manhattan in the traditional sense.  The three of us sampled both, commented on both and it was after much discussion that I decided to call an audible and we ordered a second round of Manhattans (still bartenders choice) this time asking that one of the two selections be closer to the more traditional formulation.  This round we were presented with the traditional form plus another interesting riff.

After serious discussion amongst the judges we decided that the rules of the challenge should take such an experience into account and allow for a place to be expressive in their presentations.  As such, the rules will be modified — we will still order a “bartender’s choice” but if several styles of this drink are or could be offered we will ask that at least one of the drinks presented be closer to the traditional formulation of the drink.  Each judge will taste, comment and score the various offerings and the average of each of the judges scores will be used as their score for that location/round.  This form of scoring was used last night.

Round: #1

Grouping: The Star Lounge and The Clover Club

Winner: The Clover Club

The Star Lounge

Recap: You enter the Star Lounge from one of two entry points, one off the BLT restaurant or one via the lobby area and in so doing you enter a space that feels more like entering the front parlor of a townhouse than it does a lobby.  The bar is located just off this space and is relatively small in comparison.  Holding court over the bar is the genuinely happy-go-lucky, and all around well known master that is the head bartender Norman Bukofzer.  You come to the Star Lounge for one reason and maybe two — you come first and foremost to interact with Norman and second, to taste his drinks.  We each took a seat at the bar and proceeded to ask Norman to create for us a bartenders choice of a Manhattan.  Norman inquired on the typical check-list of items including spirit and up vs. on the rocks and leaving it completely in his hands he proceeded to mix us up our drinks.  Selecting several glass mixing vessels, he added standard thin bar ice to each mixing glass and on top of the ice in each glass also dropped 5 dashes (by my count) of Fees orange bitters; he then free poured Cinzano sweet vermouth into the same vessels.  Norman selected Michter’s Bourbon US #1 as the spirit of choice and again free poured into each of the mixing glasses.  Stirring each glass separately (but not at the same time), Norman then combined the contents of each of the mixing glasses into a single metal tin, further stirred the mixture and then poured out each drink into the waiting cocktail glasses.  Garnished with both an orange twist and maraschino cherry the drinks were presented for our enjoyment.

theSpeakista’s Score and Review: 7 points (out of 10 possible) – Semi-sweet against a full flavored bourbon.  The orange bitters (and there was a good punch of this) are present at the front and linger strongly on the after palate.  As the drink warms the bitters become a stronger force as does the bourbon which seems to tame, partly, the overtly sweet vermouth that was used.

The Godfather’s Score and Review: 7 ½ points (out of 10 possible) – Didn’t need/like the orange peel garnish. The drink tasted cohesive and closer to what I look for and like in a Manhattan.  Fantastic texture and mouth feel.  Despite the heavy dose of bitters I really couldn’t taste them.

CM’s (Guest Judge’s) Review and Score: 6 points (out of 10 possible) – Issue is the ice; the drink was built over standard bar ice that melts very quickly and as such the drink had a watered down taste to it.  It was descent tasting but as the drink warmed the drink also became more bitter.

Total Score: 20.5 points (out of 30 possible, total points)

The Clover Club

Recap: Located a short drive over the Brooklyn Bridge, The Clover Club is one of the best craft bars in NYC (and well worth the trip).  Upon entering you are greeted by the warmth of the surroundings (dimly lit space, banquet and bar style seating and wood and paneled lined walls) and equally warm feeling from the greeter in the front lounge area.  In the case of this evening, we were greeted by Frankie Marshall (who is, on most evenings, a bartender) who proceeded to find us a wonderful seat overlooking the main bar.  Presented with a menu upon sitting we decided to move forward with the challenge and ordered a bar tenders choice of Manhattan.  Frankie inquired several times and in several different ways for specifications (as any good bartender would) left and came back to the table a short time later presenting us with two riffs on the Manhattan, a Vieux Carre and a Bensonhurst. Consumed, the judges all agreed to try a second round in order to better align the experience to the challenge and this time we again asked for Manhattan’s but specifying one to be “more of a standard formulation.”  Frankie again came back a short time after ordering and presented us with two drinks, one had us faced with a Jim Beam-based Manhattan and the second was again a riff on the Manhattan, one Franky called a Triborough Bridge.  It was at this point in our journey that I, after consultation with my fellow judges, decided on the change to the rules described earlier.

theSpeakista’s Score and Review: 7.125 (average) points (out of 10 possible) – An interesting show case of drinks – would have thought that in requesting a Manhattan we would have seen a stronger showing on this, at least in terms of a “base line”.  Two of the riffs were quite strong but the two closer options to compare were relatively week, very dry in taste and lacking a certain balance.  Don’t get me wrong I really like exploration but exploration usually begins from a common starting point.

The Godfather’s Score and Review: 6.5 (average) points (out of 10 possible) – The drinks were good but not specifically Manhattan like for my taste and would have preferred something closer, or better, to the standard formulation.  The Bensonhurst was very intense/spicy; the Vieux Carre is a nice take on the Manhattan and the Jim Beam Manhattan was much too dry for my taste.

CM’s (Guest Judge’s) Score and Review: 7 (average) points (out of 10 possible) – Tasty in some and little too herbaceous in others.  For the most part the samples were balanced but the “base” Manhattan presented was too dry.

Total Score: 20.625 (average) points (out of 30 possible, total points)

Lessons Learned (so far)

Time Matters: We have witnessed first hand between the two rounds currently in the book that time matters – in this case, the time that you arrive at a bar matters.  At the Campbell Apartment, in the heart of rush hour, do not expect to get a well made drink and do not expect an environment that is conducive to quality drink tasting. However, show up to the Star Lounge or the Clover Club mid week, properly timed, and you will be treated not only to a calming atmosphere but well made drinks.

Professionalism and experience will always shine through: Living and drinking in Manhattan you are more apt to encounter a poorly made drink by an inexperienced bar tender as you are to find a well made one by a professional with skill (although in many respects this is changing).  Even in restaurants and lounges that should know better you may often receive swill.  We have seen this issue in our little experiment – quality will always rise to the top and if/when it does, you should embrace it and reward it with your patronage.

There is a difference … : The Star Lounge/Clover Club battle revealed something (not specific to the Star Lounge) which we’ve experience before (sorry to admit it) but there is a difference between high-end craft style bars and more common venues.  A craft bar bartender is more likely, when presented with the challenge of a “bartenders choice” to take you on a journey of discovery into a realm you may never have experienced or frankly, may not have been looking to take.  It is a challenge and they attempt to win it.  Whereas you can go to a fantastic bar and when faced with the same open ended request get a well made, albeit formulaic, response.  It is important that serious imbibers (and I assume you all are) understand this dynamic and set your expectations accordingly … a mistake we made in this latest endeavor.

Tastes may very but thoughts are consistent: Thus far we are two rounds into our project-o-fun with two separate guest judges and what we have seen is that while we all have different tastes, preferences and opinions on the drinks we have witnessed relative uniformity in comments (not so much scores … but in the actual thoughts of any given drink).

Excitement abounds as we move on to more drinks and more locations and we are looking forward to seeing if we gain additional insights.  Thank you again, and again and again to the guest judges who have volunteered not only their time but their taste buds as well for our little endeavor … we know it was tough!

Next up, later this week … we have the four more participants (assuming we stay on track).

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