November 25, 2009
There’s no two ways about it, I likes me a good Manhattan. I likes me one any time of year really, but I especially likes me one during fall. There’s something about the bracing combination of whiskey and sweet vermouth that warms my soul and embraces my palate like a hug from a fond, familiar friend. Its simplicity is sublime, and even more welcome during the season of fleeting repose–this is when we prefer our refreshments quick and to the point. This must be why the robber baron J.P. Morgan winded down each day with a Manhattan, and why renowned cocktailist Gary Regan calls it the king of cocktails.
There are a couple of rivaling stories about the origin of the Manhattan. One story takes us back to the 1870s, and the old Manhattan Club which used to be in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood. According to the now-discredited legend, Winston Churchill’s mother created the drink for a special banquet at the club. The other story gives the credit to a man simply known as ‘Black,’ who in the 1860s ran a watering hole in SoHo–surely a different SoHo than we would recognize today.
2 oz Rye or Bourbon whiskey
1 oz sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
lemon twist for garnish
Place ingredients in a mixing glass filled with ice and stir for at least 20 seconds. Strain into a coupe or cocktail glass and twist the lemon peel over the drink to spritz it with the citrus oil.
Originally Manhattans were made exclusively with Rye whiskey (made from, you guessed it, rye grain) but as the popularity and availability of Rye whiskey declined over the last century, Bourbon (made from corn) became the drink’s mainstay. Although purists might frown upon using Bourbon in a Manhattan (especially now that Rye is more readily available), there’s nothing wrong with it in the least–it’s simply different. Depending upon my mood I’ll use either Bourbon (which is slightly sweeter because of the corn base) or Rye (which tends to be a bit more austere and straight to the point). It’s really whichever suits your taste, and even within those categories there will be wide differences in nose, taste, and body, depending on which brand you pick up.
Here I chose Wild Turkey Rare Breed Bourbon. A few steps above the entry level Wild Turkey, this one is extremely smooth with a touch of rye throughout the nose and palate, and has a pleasant honey-like finish. I also like using a higher proof whiskey in a Manhattan (since I know the vermouth will tame the rough edges) and the Wild Turkey Rare Breed is bottled at cask strength, weighing in at 108 proof. Last but not least I thought it would be fitting to go with the Wild Turkey since tomorrow is Turkey day after all.
Equally important as the whiskey is the choice of vermouth, which again is a matter of personal preference. However, being aware of the flavor profile and intensity of your vermouth can bring you much closer to crafting the perfect Manhattan. For example, when using Vya sweet vermouth you’ll want to increase the whiskey to 3 ounces since it’s sort of a beast of a vermouth that can easily overpower the flavor of the whiskey.
Although standard Manhattans call for sweet vermouth, switching to dry vermouth gets you a Dry Manhattan, and using equal parts sweet and dry vermouth gets you a Perfect Manhattan.
The bitters are another critical aspect of a Manhattan. Tradition calls for Angostura, at about two dashes. Some prefer less, some prefer more. Some prefer Peychaud’s or orange bitters. Still others prefer to mix and match. The only way you can really go wrong here is if you don’t like the final product. Per the notes above, your taste ultimately makes the final call both in terms of the type of bitters and the amount.
Lastly, the garnish. The cherry has come to be the traditional garnish, although I’m hesitant to recommend the Maraschino, since the modern atomic-red, sticky sweet iterations are not–I repeat NOT–real Maraschino cherries. Real Maraschinos are candied cherries that have been soaked in Marasca syrup. The brand Luxardo makes a divine product, and if you can get your hands on them–which unfortunately and surprisingly here in NY you can’t–you ought to get them. Under no circumstances, however, should you use the aforementioned abominations who’s name we shall pledge to no longer utter.
I usually choose a lemon twist–partly because of the difficulty of finding Luxardo cherries–but sometimes I go for an orange twist. Again, all up to your taste. Some even prefer to go sans garnish, and that’s fine as well.
The beauty of the Manhattan is that it can be tinkered with in numerous ways without veering too far from the path and losing its integrity–a characteristic that has no doubt served it well and has contributed to its staying power.
It’s good to be the king. Cheers and happy Turkey Day!
*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below!
**Paystyle was born in Tehran and grew up in Los Angeles (aka Tehrangeles) before moving to Brooklyn with his wife and co-pilot Vanessa Bahmani who provides the stunning photography of Pay’s concoctions. Return every Wednesday for his weekly Happy Hour column.