The Martini’s all well and good – but the Manhattan is the true mecca for the serious mixologist, argues Naren Young
‘The dry gin Martini is often heralded as the king of cocktails, but it’s the Manhattan that’s the true sovereign of the V-shaped glass,’ says New York bartending legend Gary Regan. ‘The Martini, a mere pretender to the throne, was far more interesting prior to Prohibition. The Manhattan, on the other hand, is a drink to be reckoned with.’
The Manhattan is one of those cocktails that every bartender should know. And at least in America, they do, which would be expected of course, given its moniker. Martinis and Manhattans are often spoken about in the same sentence and with the same reverence. The Martini, however, has been bastardised to a point where it is often unrecognisable as a Martini at all. Like most great cocktails
of its era it should be short, ice cold and bracing. It should not be prefaced by the words ‘chocolate’ or ‘bubble gum’.
Sure, there are also Manhattan variations popping up all over the world, but the differences are minimal compared with the ‘tini’ craze that has washed over us during the last decade. It seems the ‘hattan’ suffix is somewhat more sacred, and in fact there exist some delightful flavoured versions out there, from cherry tobacco to bacon.
‘Like most great cocktails of its era it should be short, ice cold and bracing’
Like many classic cocktails, the Manhattan’s origins are well documented, but not often substantiated by fact. The most common story suggests that the drink was invented in 1874 at a party hosted at the Manhattan Club (which has long since closed) by Lady Randolph Churchill (Sir Winston’s mother) in honour of the Democratic presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden.
The problem with this theory is that at the time, Jennie Jerome (her maiden name) was in England about to give birth to young Winston. Even if she had been Stateside, it seems unlikely that a 20-year-old woman would have been the host of such a prestigious gathering of august politicians. This is not to say, however, that the drink was not created at the Manhattan Club, but there is scant evidence to cement that it was either.
Nevertheless, it is first mentioned in print in 1882, and turns up for the first time in a cocktail book in 1884, in O.H Byron’s The Modern Bartenders’ Guide, which lists two versions: a No. 1 (two parts of dry vermouth, one part whiskey, a healthy three to four dashes of Angostura and some gum syrup); and a No. 2 featuring equal parts whiskey and sweet vermouth mixed with bitters and some curaçao (a popular liqueur of the time).
Several early Manhattan recipes don’t resemble the one we know today – take Harry Johnson’s which, strangely, includes curaçao or absinthe, as well as gum syrup and equal parts whiskey and (unspecified) vermouth. Others call for maraschino, as in the case of the final edition of Jerry Thomas’ How to Mix Drinks, published in 1887, two years after his death. Clearly tastes in those halcyon days were far sweeter, although part of the reason may also have been to mask the crude spirits of the day. Charlie Paul, in his Recipes of American and Other Iced Drinks (1902) suggests we use scotch in our Manhattan, which, as we well know, goes by the name Rob Roy, a drink already in circulation by then.
So let’s break it down…
Up until Prohibition rocked America in 1920, rye whiskey was the favoured American dram. It was in fact the early Scottish and Irish immigrants that arrived in the late 18th century who brought with them the skill and knowledge of distilling when they settled in the north eastern states such as Maryland and Pennsylvania. In these often cold climes, the most plentiful grain was rye and so this is what they used. After the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s, many farmers and home distillers ventured south, eventually settling in and around Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, where the weather was more favourable to crops such as corn. Soon after, the bourbon industry was born.
Most of the early whiskey cocktails that we read about used rye as their base – at least up until Prohibition, when most rye supplies completely dried up. It has only been in the last decade, coinciding with the re-birth of many old forgotten recipes, coupled with bartenders looking for authenticity in their classics, that we have seen many rye whiskies coming back, which is great news for the Manhattan drinker.
Rye whiskies are generally lighter in body than bourbon and have a distinct peppery note (think of the difference between eating corn and rye bread), making for a completely different drink. There are many wonderful brands now available, including: Michter’s, Van Winkle, Wild Turkey, Hirsch, Old Overholt, Rittenhouse, Sazerac, Thomas H Handy, Black Maple Hill and the Old Potrero ‘Hotalings’.
Nowadays if someone asks for a Manhattan (save for a few die-hard bartenders), the chances are they’re expecting bourbon. Just as we’ve become used to asking if our guests prefer theirs ‘sweet, dry or perfect?’, we should also be asking if they have a preferred whiskey as the base. It’s a nice touch.
Vermouth – the Italian rosso (sweet) version – began arriving in the US in the late 1840s and soon after began to find its way into cocktails. Many cocktails of the day were taken as, ahem, tonics and usually in the morning. Vermouth, with its agreeable alcohol content, was the perfect fuel for such drinks. The Manhattan has been one of its greatest routes to popularity, softening the strong whiskey while finding a wonderful synergy with the existing botanicals in the bitters.
There are many wonderful and vastly different styles and brands of vermouth, each adding their own unique nuances to a Manhattan. The rosso remains the most popular choice today, and while I prefer my Manhattans ‘perfect’, I also feel that dry vermouth on its own does not mix well with whiskey in a dry version. The Antica Formula vermouth by Carpano is a wondrous product, filled with unctuous spice, while Dolin is an old brand from Chambery which is fast finding its feet again. For something a lot richer, try Punt e Mes (especially in winter when your Manhattan will feel like a warm hug), while the more common Martini Rosso is delightful.
Going by the earliest definition of the word, it was bitters that made the cocktail, well, a cocktail. It was, and is, a key ingredient in many classic drinks and continues to inspire bartenders to this day in many a modern libation, especially the Manhattan. Some of the earliest references to the Manhattan include orange bitters in the recipe, such as Harry Johnson’s.
Like rye whiskey, orange bitters was once a very popular addition to cocktails, but only recently have we seen more brands come on the market again, including those from Gaz Regan, Angostura, Bittermen’s, Fee Brothers, Boker’s, The Bitter Truth and Scrappy’s.
Ask any decent mixologist and they’ll tell you that bitters are an indispensible part of their repertoire. As further evidence of this trend, many bartenders now make their own, some of them commercially.
Seattle bartender Jim Romdall, working at Vessel, is a stern advocate of using bitters in many of his cocktails. ‘Bitters are the salt of cocktails, the universal seasoning. Not only do bitters balance out a cocktail, but they also accent flavours in spirits. Bitters will always make a cocktail more complex, providing more layers,’ he explains.
Then there are those sacrilegious sadists who leave the bitters out completely. It’s true, it happens (although, ironically, more so in America). It’s an omission which Gaz Regan once declared ‘a sin for which they will no doubt pay come judgment day’. To be clear, a Manhattan (which only has three ingredients to begin with) is just not a Manhattan without the bitters.
The most common garnish for the Manhattan is of course the humble ‘maraschino’ cherry. I put that in inverted commas because the neon-coloured cherries which most bars stock (and which should be avoided at all costs) taste nothing like the Marasca cherry from which they originally derived. Neither are they soaked in maraschino liqueur like the original would have been.
So why not make your own infused cherries? It’s so easy and you’ll have something completely personal to your Manhattan. A simple spice infusion is always welcome, infusing fresh cherries in sweet vermouth and cinnamon, star anise, vanilla and peppercorns. And if someone prefers theirs on the sweeter side, then a small barspoon of this delicious syrup will add further complexity.
The lemon twist is the other common Manhattan accompaniment. But if you’re trying to add an extra sensory dimension through aroma then make a flavoured tincture by infusing various herbs, spices, fruit peels etc into 100 proof vodka and then spray it over the drink using an atomiser. Why not a blend of citrus for your spring Manhattan or a cinnamon or vanilla tincture in the winter?
MANHATTANS IN MANHATTAN
Whenever a bartender visits from overseas, their eyes wide like dinner plates at the reality that they are actually in New York, what is the first drink I recommend? Well, it has to be a Manhattan in Manhattan of course, in spite of the obvious cliché.
Many great bars make sublime Manhattans and variations thereof. A saunter around town will usually start at the Pegu Club for a Little Italy (Rittenhouse rye, sweet vermouth, Cynar), where Italy’s famed artichoke amaro stands in as the bitter component. Then it’s a short stroll over to Little Branch for the delightful Left Hand Cocktail (bourbon, Antica Formula vermouth, Campari, chocolate bitters). It seems only fitting that a bar called Rye House would have a killer Manhattan and it does: the Curry Hill (cardamom chai tea-infused Rittenhouse rye, Batavia Arrack, Antica Formula, orange and Angostura bitters) courtesy of Jim Kearns, one of the island’s finest bar keeps.
At the subterranean B Flat in Tribeca, you’ll get all the Japanese pomp and ceremony as they expertly stir you a classic variation using the rich Blanton’s, served on a perfectly carved ice sphere and all under the gentle hum of live jazz. Louis 649 in Alphabet City is always a welcome, homely spot that serves up a very good version, perhaps with the softer, low octane Old Overholt rye.
If you want your Manhattan with no fuss, then head up to PJ Clarke’s where the city’s best bartender Doug Quinn (take that as gospel) will make you one in its simplest form while he is doing 20 other things simultaneously. Respect.
One of my favourites, though (and a fitting way to end an evening) is at Milk & Honey, especially if Sam Ross is working, who created this wonderful libation called the Cobble Hill (rye, Amaro Montenegro, Dolin dry vermouth, cucumber). If you’re still standing at the end of all this, I tip my hat to you.
MAKE YOUR MARK
Depending on how geeky you want to be about your Manhattans and how passionate you are about this fine cocktail, there are a few things you could try to really make your Manhattan stand out. We would all love a bespoke drinks trolley to wheel around to our guests like at The Connaught in London, but something very simple (which The Connaught also offers with its Martini service) is a selection of bitters that are laid out in eye droppers or beautiful bottles.
Perhaps there’s a Manhattan page on your menu showing the evolution of the cocktail through the ages, highlighting the many wonderful recipes that have evolved since its inception. Or a Manhattan flight where people can try three mini size cocktails, each with a different whiskey, bitters, vermouth and garnish.
It also doesn’t hurt to list all of your whiskies and vermouths together so that guests can easily see what you have and create their own combination.
And finally, train the hell out of your staff on the finest differences in the whiskies and what each type of bitters and vermouth bring to the Manhattan. Upselling and suggestive selling becomes too easy from there.
There are myriad variations on the Manhattan; in fact it’s enough to confuse even the most experienced bon vivant. Which whiskey with which vermouth with which bitters? I sat down with Jim Meehan and Sean Hoard of PDT to ‘research’ a few different Manhattans. All were made ‘sweet’ with two dashes of bitters, 30ml vermouth and 60ml whiskey. All were stirred and served up with no garnish.
Whiskey: Woodford Reserve bourbon (45.2%)
Bitters: Adam Elmegirab Boker’s
The result: A very light Manhattan; lean and dry with everything in balance; an elegant ‘summery’ version.
Whiskey: Knob Creek bourbon (50%)
Vermouth: Antica Formula
The result: Nicely balanced where the vermouth’s richness stands up well to the higher proof bourbon. A fine example.
Whiskey: Rittenhouse rye (50%)
Vermouth: Martini Rosso
Bitters: The Bitter Truth Aromatic
The result: A benchmark Manhattan where the vermouth really opened up the whiskey; nicely structured; nothing overpowering.
Whiskey: Wild Turkey rye (50.5%)
Bitters: Fee Brothers Whiskey Barrel Aged
The result: A little hot at first (perhaps better suited on the rocks); rich with Xmas spice and chocolate; better as a dessert or Winter Manhattan.
Whiskey: Van Winkle 13yo Rye
Vermouth: Martini Rosso
The result: The best of the bunch – perfect balance, long mouthfeel and nothing competing for dominance. Perfect.
by Cameron Bogue, Bar Pleiades, New York
‘The pecans are toasted and candied with espelette pepper and then macerated for 72 hours in the bourbon. This simple variation on a Perfect Manhattan incorporates warming autumn flavours. The nuttiness and spice of the bourbon is accentuated with the aromatic properties of the Islay scotch.’
Garnish: 3 drops Ardbeg scotch
Method: Stir with ice and strain over fresh ice.
60ml espelette-candied pecans infused into Elijah Craig 12yon
15ml Carpano Antica Formulavermouth
20ml Dolin dry vermouth
2 dashes Fee Brothers Whiskey
Barrel Aged bitters
By George Nemec, Lost Heaven Lounge, Shanghai
‘This drink is dedicated to all the men that have been left on their own, being hated by their own women and needing a cup of something decent to kill the devil.’
Garnish: Orange twist
Method: Stir with ice and strain.
45ml Old Overholt rye
15ml Dolin sweet vermouth
2 dashes of homemade bacon bitters
By Ben Simpson, Motel, Wellington
‘Yes, I know, shaking a Manhattan is like shaking a baby, never to be done (unless you are following the method for Manhattan No.1 in The Savoy Cocktail Book – or almost any other cocktail book circa inter-war years).’
Garnish: Flaming rosemary sprig coated
in absinthe, doused in the drink
Method: Shake with ice and double strain.
50ml rye whiskey
20ml Punt e Mes
2 dashes of coffee and chicory bitters
1 orange wedge
By Jack Hubbard, Montgomery Place, London
‘The drink is named after the Reunion Island that coffee was cultivated on during its journey to America. They created a different strain of coffee which was a form of Arabica called Arabica Bourbon.’
Garnish: 70% dark chocolate on the side
Method: Stir with ice and strain.
50ml Rittenhouse Rye
15ml Montgomery vermouth
15ml Galliano Ristretto
2 dashes Bokers Bitters
By Josh Pearson, Sepia, Chicago
‘It’s cold in Chicago. Really, really cold. The Winter Manhattan is an all out assault against the weather. The Rittenhouse 21 is a huge woody rye with traces of vanilla, fruit and chocolate. It’s combined with the almost velvet-like Carpano Antica for the most possible warmth in a glass. The Benedictine adds a faint medicinal quality so you know it’s good for you and the mole bitters draw even more spice from the rye.’
Method: Stir with ice and strain.
90ml Rittenhouse Rye 21yo
30ml Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
1 barspoon Benedictine
Dash Bitter Truth Chocolate Mole bitters
The Manhattan of the Alchemist
By Arnd Henning Heissen, Shochu Bar, Berlin
‘My inspiration for this Manhattan is the never-ending world of fascinating perfumes of the Orient. With this drink, the guest is supposed to sit down, close their eyes, and step on the flying carpet and travel around the oriental world like the alchemist in Paulo Coelho’s book.’
Garnish: Orange twist and a mini pear
Method: Stir with ice and strain.
50ml saffron-infused Basil Hayden bourbon
30ml Carpano Antica Formula vermouth
1 dash Shochu house bitters
Many thanks to Montgomery Place and Jack Hubbard for hosting the photo shoot and making the drinks.