Aaron Howard, currently tending bar at NEAT—A Whiskey Bar in Portland, is a crafty combination of mad scientist and private investigator. He’s a crazed chemist when he’s in his private laboratory fiddling with new ingredients for his wildly creative cocktails, and in his leisure time he rummages the internet like a modern-day Indiana Jones, firing off inquiries about rare and precious libations, tracking down one-of-a-kind bottles.
Howard was formerly at Sidecar 11, where he established a reputation for finding—and pouring—the rare and precious on a regular basis. He continues to seek out the treasures of the past. When the investigator succeeds, the craft bartender takes over. The results were on display at NEAT when Aaron held an event featuring “The 1917 Vintage Manhattan.”
Exulting over finally securing possession of a living historical artefact, a bottle of the legendary “Eagle Brand” Napa & Sonoma Wine Company Madeira Superior, circa 1917, Howard decided that wine and spirits are best when shared, so designed his “1917 Vintage Manhattan” to allow people a rare opportunity to enjoy the iconic American whiskey cocktail with a 99 year old California “Madeira”.
Howard is an enthusiast of cocktail history and lore. Ask him about the styles of Manhattans over the years and he’ll happily cite chapter and verse about changes, trends and variations in the iconic cocktail over the years.
For his “1917” Howard combined Big Bottom Delta Rye Whiskey, a nicely crafted blend of Indiana straight rye and exceptional Canadian rye whisky with a spicy, leathery but balanced profile, with the 1917 California Madeira, adding a dash of Regan’s No.6 Orange Bitters to help enhance the fruity and floral notes of the fortified wine.
The Napa & Sonoma Wine Company “California Madeira” is, of course not true madeira wine, and there is no way to know what constituent grape varieties were used for the blend. All we know now is the company was founded in 1896 and over the next several years received numerous national and international awards. The fortified wine is 20% alcohol, which has helped it bear up during the aging and maturation process since it was released.
Even at the golden age of 99, the wine still had an abundance of fruit, albeit in the nature of dried fruit and preserves, with earthy and spicy notes evident, and a not unpleasant bitter edge. It married quite nicely with the orange bitters and was more than forceful enough to deal with the Big Bottom Delta Rye, itself a robust 111 Proof.
The result was an impressive, assertive, powerful boozy drink with engaging fruit leading to some noticeably intense, dark, and brooding depths, the type of drink to nurse, sip slowly, lave around in the mouth, and ponder on whatever seemed to be the important things in life right at that moment.
It was an interesting moment, one not likely to be repeated again, certainly not often. Those bottles of wine from the early 1900s of California’s burgeoning wine scene just prior to Prohibition—even though sturdy, fortified blends with high preservative value of strong alcohol—are ever more rare and precious. Thanks to Howard, not only for his crafty cocktail creations and his unflaggingly stubborn detective work, but for the impulse to share this rare experience with as many people as possible.
He pledges there will be more of these rare moments in future. We can only hope the intrepid investigator is successful.