Bacon + Bourbon: The Next Big Thing?

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Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
The winning cocktail
​If the results of Monday night's Manhattan Experience contest are anything to go by, the answer is yes.

It appears -- for now, at least -- that bacon hasn't entirely jumped the shark. The winning entry in the Woodford Reserve Manhattan Experience at the Houston Museum of Natural Science featured a Manhattan augmented with maple syrup and candied bacon, a concoction devised by Derek Black, bartender at The Rockwood Room.

The smokiness of the candied bacon bits that rimmed the martini glass subtly augmented the woodsy flavor of the bacon-infused Woodford Reserve bourbon, with a sweet finish from the similarly woodsy maple syrup (used in place of sweet vermouth), making for an almost irresistable cocktail from top to bottom.

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Baklava Manhattan
Other entries in the event were equally impressive, with an emphasis on creatively enhancing the classic Manhattan recipe of bourbon, bitters and sweet vermouth. Dimitra Kriticos of Olympia at Pier 21 (the popular Kriticos family's second restaurant in Galveston) created a baklava-inspired Manhattan that featured cinnamon and nutmeg in a powdered sugar-rimmed glass with a glistening bite of baklava on the side. Joe Le from Aca Sushi created a Japanese-themed Manhattan with green tea liqueur. And our personal favorite Manhattan, in which a whole vanilla bean was reduced in Grand Marnier and infused into the cocktail, was created by Michael Raymond of Reserve 101.

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A traditional Manhattan: bourbon, bitters and sweet vermouth
​Before the judging got underway, I had a chance to chat with Chris Morris, Woodford's master distiller and second-generation whiskey man, who related more fascinating tales of bourbon-fueled road trips than we have space for.

Morris spends nearly 100 days a year on the road, acting as an ambassador for Woodford and -- in a broader capacity -- for bourbon, which can only be called such if the whiskey is crafted here in America, when he's abroad. Bourbon is shockingly well-received in Ireland, where they look on our whiskey-making with fond parental affection, Morris relayed. This isn't the case in neighboring Scotland, Morris laughingly told me, as the Scots take an odd sort of umbrage at the upstart Americans who think they can make whiskey as good as theirs. But who needs the Scots when countries like Australia and Japan are just as eager to drink our American-made bourbon as we are?

Once we got down to judging, Morris was all business, as was the judge to my left -- Justin Burrow of Anvil Bar & Refuge -- who was carefully monitoring the bartenders as they measured, poured and shook their concoctions. "I don't see any jiggers over there," he noted warily as Kriticos hustled to pull together her highly complicated, multi-ingredient Manhattan. We privately bemoaned the use of a whole vanilla bean as a garnish in the vanilla Manhattan, despite enjoying the flavor of the cocktail. "How much would would you charge for that cocktail at Anvil?" I asked him. "Twenty-five dollars," Burrow responded, thoroughly unimpressed with the choice of garnish. "And that wouldn't even cover the cost of the bean."

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The winning team: Derek Black, Michael Dei Maggi and Benjamin Ashworth (L to R)
In the end, though, the overly complicated and the cost-prohibitive cocktails lost out to the simplicity that was bourbon and bacon. The team from The Rockwood Room, which included executive chef and partner Michael Dei Maggi and sous chef Benjamin Ashworth, cheered wildly in front of the large crowd as they congratulated their very humble-looking bartender, who seemed somewhat bemused by the win.

According to Dei Maggi, The Rockwood Room is currently scheduled to open in November near Uptown Park in the Galleria area. Touted as a heady, retro, wood-toned and leather-boothed place that would please the Rat Pack or Don Draper's crew on Mad Men, the restaurant and bar seemingly aim to attract the readership of Esquire magazine (both male and female) -- fittingly, since the magazine sponsored the event.

The bacon Manhattan will be featured on The Rockwood Room's menu, as well it should be. After all, what goes better with a throwback, uber-masculine aesthetic than smoked meat and whiskey?


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