Sophia Kim, a bartender at Saison, was a finalist in a Manhattan-making competition.

Sophia Kim took a step forward, but the talented local bartender thinks it was much more than that.

A year ago, Kim won a local Manhattan-making contest and advanced to the national semifinals, but her journey stopped there.

This past month, she again won the local contest to advance — along with 39 others from across North America — to the semifinals in Louisville, Ky. There, she excelled to become one of six finalists in the Manhattan Experience, a Woodford Reserve-sponsored competition to find the most creative Manhattan-maker in the U.S. and Canada.

Kim didn’t win the top award, but in her mind, she was still a winner.

“During the regional semifinal, I decided that if I could just make it to finals in New York that it would be a huge win,” said Kim, a bartender at Saison restaurant on West Marshall Street. “I made that a goal and was so shocked and honored when they announced my name among the top six.

“I had a moment of clarity leading up to the competition that all I could really do was be the best version of myself, and this really helped me to stay calm and channel all my energy into being present. I truly felt elated most of the time I was there.

“Though I did not take home the final prize, I honestly did not feel too much disappointment, because I was just so happy to be a part of it to begin with.”

Kim says the Manhattan Experience has helped make her a better bartender, especially during the past year.

“I definitely feel that I have grown since last year,” she said. “Participating in competitions really pushes you to evaluate yourself, fine-tune strengths and work on weaknesses.

“Competition has also helped me, through practice, to become better at paying attention to detail and having fuller awareness of my movements when presenting a drink to anyone.

“I have also been working at Saison for the past year and truly feel that I have grown so much by working with people who genuinely strive to deliver quality food, drink and hospitality. Participating in this competition has really pushed me to work toward elevating my craft.”

Finalists were required to make a Manhattan of their choice and also create a unique mixture. Kim opted for a Manhattan she called Spot On, which included a liqueur (Cynar) and two sherrys in addition to Woodford Reserve Rye. (Recipe is to the right on this page.)

“I wanted to create a drink that hit as many taste buds as possible, one that rolls through different flavors while staying cohesive,” Kim said. “The Pedro Ximenez sherry adds a little sweetness as well as complements the dark, dried fruit notes in the whiskey. The Cynar brings in some caramel while balancing some bitterness against the sweet.

“The Amontillado sherry brings acidity and elevates the nutty notes in the whiskey. The Angostura bitters adds some spice. The drop of saline kind of ties it all together. In cooking, salt can really magnify flavors, and the same can happen in cocktails.”

All of which results in a concoction worth trying ... or making.

— Adapted from Sophia Kim, Saison (23 W. Marshall St., Richmond)

— Adapted from Ben Nelson, Laura Lee’s (3410 Semmes Ave., Richmond)

— Adapted from Madison Pere, Little Nickel (4702 Forest Hill Ave., Richmond)

Jack Berninger’s column on spirits and wine appears every other week in the Culture section. Contact him at

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