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in search of the manhattan cocktail

It’s that time of year: if you don’t drink a Manhattan cocktail now, you probably never will. Don’t think you need snow on the ground and a roaring fire. If you live in the tropics, as I do, simply crank the A/C down to 55 and enjoy yourself.

I’m drinking less whiskey lately, but there was a time when my consumption of Manhattan cocktails was north of 500 annually. At any time of year, all the clichés hold true. It’s soothing. It’s represents purity of flavor. It puts you in touch with the fundamental nature of the universe. And best of all, it’s so simple that any idiot can make one.

In today’s cocktail culture, that’s the problem. Most classic drinks contain three ingredients, four at the most, yet the new generation of mixologists don’t seem happy with less than one dozen. It’s hard to be noticed in a crowded field, and a signature cocktail with a bevy of exotic ingredients is helpful in reaching that goal. It recalls Drew Nieporent’s plaintive wail: Please just give me a freaking vodka rocks already.

The dozen-ingredient fad is fading, but a disturbing counter-trend has sprouted. Yes, you can walk into a hip bar and get a variation on a classic cocktail, but the components are likely to be unrecognizable. The point of using Vaporized Goat Jerky or Smoked Brazilian Acai Simple Syrup is to demonstrate that the drink you’re about to consume is something you couldn’t possibly make at home. If you could, you’d be a cutting-edge mixologist yourself rather than a CPA.

All of which brings us back to the Manhattan cocktail and its purity of flavor. First, the history: the drink was supposedly invented in the early 1870s at New York’s Manhattan Club at a dinner hosted by Jennie Jerome, the mother of Winston Churchill. Like most cocktail stories, this one is probably untrue, although it remains closely associated with the city of my birth (all the boroughs have cocktails named for them except Staten Island, although the Staten Island Ferry did inspire a tiki knock-off). As we know, the three ingredients are whiskey, vermouth and bitters, and each one plays a role.

components and preparation of the manhattan                                           cocktail

Whiskey: Rye is traditional, because the spiciness of the spirit is a perfect foil for the sweetness of the vermouth. Which rye you choose is a matter of personal preference, although remember that there may not be much difference from one to another (see Are Your Craft Spirits Distilled and Aged at A Warehouse in Indiana?). In a pinch you could use Canadian Club, which has a high rye content, although the gurus of the current cocktail culture wouldn’t drink Canadian Club (or any other Canadian whiskey, for that matter) if you pulled their fingernails out under torture. Remember that a Manhattan cocktail made with Bourbon usually requires less vermouth, since the spirit is sweeter due to the majority of corn in the blend.

Vermouth: Just a minor mixer, you think? Think again. The quality of the vermouth you use is absolutely crucial. The best one available is Carpano Antica Formula. You may not want to spend $35 for a bottle of vermouth, but consider this: when you’re gone, do you want friends to look back and think, He invited me to his house, and the cheap bastard made me a Manhattan cocktail with Martini and Rossi. If you really are a cheap bastard, a good alternative is Dolin ($16-18), a light, floral and aromatic vermouth from the French Alps which is delightful. Another good compromise is Noilly Prat, which costs $10-12 in most parts of the country. Regardless of which one you choose, make sure it’s sweet. Dry vermouth is useless, since it doesn’t provide the necessary flavor contrast with the whiskey. The only way to get a “perfect” Manhattan cocktail is to follow the recipe.

Bitters: Angostura is still the gold standard, although the market is flooded with designer bitters at hefty prices. You can experiment and see which one you like best, but a bottle of bitters goes a long way. Orange bitters are a nice touch in a Manhattan, but I recently spent $20 for a bottle of Bitter Truth Orange Bitters and was disappointed with the result. If you can find Angostura’s orange version, it should cost roughly half as much.

Preparation: This subject is fraught with controversy. The one point most experts agree on is stirred, not shaken: when you shake a Manhattan, it get cloudy and forms an annoying froth on top. His Holiness David Wondrich advises to stir all the ingredients with cracked ice, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass. This is fine if you’re drinking it straight up. If you’re a contrarian like me and want it on the rocks, pour several dashes of bitters in first so that the ice cube(s) become permeated with them, then add the other two components and stir. If you can get your hands on some brandied cherries, you’ll gain entrance to hog heaven.

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