Last year, I surprised my father by bringing over the liquor, and necessary equipment, to make Manhattan cocktails when I visited for Christmas dinner. I don't recall the impetus behind the decision to do this, but when one is talking cocktails, any reason usually suffices. I learned something that night however, which was that my grandparents had apparently been huge Manhattan drinkers. My father recalled, as a child, making my grandparents Manhattans On The Rocks on more than several occasions, pouring liquor from two different bottles over ice in a small glass, never stirring it, and never using bitters. Likely, no garnish as well, a recipe so basic and lacking in technique I can hear your inner mixologist wailing in disapproval. We discussed among those at the table the possible whiskeys and vermouths that could have been used. Although he couldn't remember the brands, my knowledge of the available liquor in the 50's and 60's leads me to believe I was most likely serving my father the best Manhattan he had ever laid eyes on. But, it's all really quite subjective, isn't it?
First, some history. The Manhattan predates virtually all of the cocktails we have become familiar with. It's the granddaddy of the Martini, and the cousin of the Old Fashioned. It stands alone as simultaneously unchanged by time, yet ever-changing, tweaked by bartenders to suit individual tastes, yet never veering too far off the path of original conceptualization. Likely invented in the mid-1800's, the most popular story of its creation involves an 1874 party thrown at the Manhattan Club in New York City to celebrate the election of newly elected Governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, and the club's official history claims this. What causes skepticism, however is that Jennie Jerome (Lady Randolph Churchill), Winston Churchill's mother, was said to be at this party and that the drink was her idea. It has been proven, however, that the fine Lady was actually in England at the time, at the very Christening of young Winston. More likely, is the story told by one William F. Mulhall, a bartender at the Hoffman House in New York in the latter decades of the 19th century, in which he claims, "The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black, who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the [eighteen-] sixties – probably the most famous drink in the world in its time." Personally, I like to credit bartenders with the invention of drinks, not socialites.
Whatever its origin, the drink took hold of the tippling public, and over the years the recipes changed subtly into the drink we are familiar with today. Two parts rye whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, a few dashes of bitters. As bartenders, we often get hung up on recipes, but really our job is all about themes. While it's important to know why you're using the ingredients you've chosen, the proportions, and the palate of the modern day drinker, more than not a cocktail can be best understood thematically. The Old Fashioned is as much about the idea of slinging back booze as the White Russian is. Every cocktail is designed with the intent to season or change the taste of alcohol from one of unpleasant flavor to one that has been deemed delicious by the recipient. If you want to taste alcohol, you drink alcohol, booze in a glass. Cocktails are another animal altogether. So what then, differs one from the next? If I add absinthe or maraschino liqueur to a Manhattan does it remain a Manhattan? If I served this drink to a customer who ordered a Manhattan, would they look at me as if I had never set foot behind a bar in my life? What if I explained to them that the man we credit as being literally the father of our craft is credited in print in 1887 with this very same recipe? Likely, our weary customer would tell me to stick it and walk out of my bar. But if I named it something else... let's say the Black Rock Cocktail, would I be on to something? I think we've all gotten a bit too uptight. We're drinking, after all, not splitting the atom.
Author and renowned cocktail historian David Wondrich has it pretty well summed up. As he explains, the Vermouth Cocktail, popular in the mid-1800's, was something of a lackluster experience, not all that boozy, but profitable to the bar owner in that the customer would likely need several to get tipsy. The Whiskey Cocktail (read: Old Fashioned) was just the opposite. Packed a punch, but knocked you off your stool. The Manhattan was something of a compromise. Boozy and flavorful, yet diluted enough to allow one to maintain his gentlemanly demeanor. If you're wondering how the Manhattan, with its generally accepted two ounces of whiskey could possibly be weaker than an Whiskey Cocktail with the same amount of liquor, I must explain that Manhattans didn't always contain higher amounts of whiskey than vermouth. In fact, the earliest recorded recipes had as much as twice as much vermouth to whiskey.
Now, it all starts to come together thematically. The Manhattan isn't as much about measuring exactly two ounces of whiskey, one ounce of vermouth and a few dashes of bitters, so much as it is about adding vermouth to a Whiskey Cocktail and seasoning it up a bit, or whiskey to a Vermouth cocktail and strengthening that up a bit. If one wanted to add a dash of curacao, or a pinch of maraschino, why not do so? Depending on the vermouth and bitters you choose, will there not be a hint of orange or cherry anyway? And what about absinthe? Last time I checked, both absinthe and vermouth use wormwood and other similar flavoring agents. Theme? Check.
What doesn't work? If you're going to flip the proportions and pour two parts vermouth, one part whiskey, you're going to need a helluva whiskey. Don't try this with Maker's Mark or you're going to end up with a sloppy mess. I recommend Elijah Craig Cask Strength Bourbon, clocking in at 140 proof, or George T Stagg, at a staggering 144 proof. The TSA won't even allow these whiskeys in a carry-on bag! Sounds good enough to me. But if you're going the traditional route, and the recipe that has now become the norm is your thing, you're going to want a nice boozy, spicy rye, and vermouth with some backbone. Skip the bourbon in this version of the drink if you can, and pick up some rye in the 100 proof arena, something like Willet or WhistlePig. Smooth Ambler Rye from West Virginia is another fine option and a little eclectic. Always go with Carpano Antica vermouth when adhering to this formula. If your, or your guest's preference demands bourbon or something less boozy, let's say Buffalo Trace or Old Overholt, go with Dolin or Noilly Prat vermouth, so it doesn't overpower the whiskey. Adjust your bitters to taste. I use Angostura (and lots of it), as do most bartenders, but I've had the drink with orange bitters and it's quite tasty. Older recipes have included Boker's Bitters, Peruvian Bitters, maraschino liqueur, Chartreuse, absinthe, and a host of other crazy ingredients. Experiment, but don't forget the theme. When beginning in the bartending trade, it's always advisable to learn the most basic form of a drink first, master that, and then progress to variants.
On the subject of garnishes, it is generally agreed upon that a cherry should adorn this cocktail in some respect. Please keep that neon-red nonsense for your ice cream sundae, and pick up a jar or two of Luxardo Maraschino cherries, or Filthy Amarena Cherries, the latter being my personal favorite. Early recipes, pre-dating prohibition rarely listed garnishes for the Manhattan, and it wasn't until later that the cherry was added. Some bartenders prefer a lemon or orange peel in this drink, and I don't disagree. Carpano Vermouth goes well with an orange peel, and if I'm using a boozy rye, the drink doesn't suffer for it. I never drop the peel in the glass, however. The cherry's already in the glass, and we don't need a fruit salad messing up an otherwise perfect cocktail.
THE MANHATTAN COCKTAIL
Stir over ice in a mixing glass until very cold, and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with an Amarena cherry.
image: Adam Patrick