Meet me in Manhattan: Test driving rye whiskeys in a classic cocktail

19 February 2019

With more rye whiskey on the market than ever – and not just from across the Pond – the Manhattan is up for review. Clinton Cawood joins a panel of bartenders as they set about pimping a classic


As the essential whiskey for a number of classics, not least the Manhattan, rye has a place in the hearts of bartenders everywhere. It’s a style that’s seen a serious resurgence in recent years. Some blame Mad Men, others just like their classic cocktails made properly.

But it’s not only big-name distillers in the US that have been turning to the spiciest of grains for their mash bills. Producers everywhere from England to Finland have been introducing their own takes, often with high rye content, and not always adhering to the flavour profile that US rye is known for. There’s lots of potential for cocktail lists if you’re willing to get to know these new spirits.

Panel
Daniel Alonso, Roxy Ball Room; Adam Binnersley, Mojo; Charlie Bissett, Roland’s; Clinton Cawood, Imbibe; Tom Finnon, The Domino Club; Lee Jones, Sandinista; Adam Wilson, The Liars Club Group

But there’s another motivation for exploring rye alternatives from outside of the US, in light of the 25% tariff imposed by the EU as retaliation for the introduction of Donald Trump’s import duty on steel in the US. What happens after Brexit remains anyone’s guess, but, in the meantime, US whiskey prices in the UK look likely rise. If there are alternatives from elsewhere that can stand up in Manhattans and more, they’re worth knowing about.

We did what anyone would do – called in a selection of what was on offer – from traditional stalwarts to barely aged rye spirits from the US and Europe. We put them in front of a panel of bartenders in Manchester for a blind tasting and then set them loose behind the bar to put a selection through their paces in some Manhattans.

Whiskeys

Adnams Rye Malt, England

Southwold’s entrant is produced using 75% rye and 25% barley, which meant that while tasters identified some standout rye notes, they also spotted that this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill US rye either. Its minimum of five years of ageing in new French oak was evident in its colour first, but also on the nose and dry palate.

Some thought it had some rum notes, or that of aged agricole, while others appreciated the grain influence, identifying toasted oats, pastry and bread flavours.

Although dry, the panel described an array of tropical and citrus fruit, and some sweet spice on its rounded palate.

47% abv, £39.99/70cl, Adnams, 01502 727272

Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye, US

This one kept our tasters guessing. Jack Daniel’s has a high rye content of 70% and those spicy notes shone through, but our panellists also found an abundance of banana skin and pear-drop notes alongside burnt sugar and sorghum.

The palate that followed was rich, sweet and spicy, with those banana aromas becoming banana bread flavours, accompanied by maple and treacle. This all led one taster to recommend this for use in a Boulevardier.

45% abv, £55.75/70cl, Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, 020 7478 1300

Jim Beam Rye Pre-Prohibition Style, US

Unmistakably traditional in style, and for some tasters unmistakably Kentucky too. This was full, rich, warming and spicy, with evident oak from its four years in barrel, some rye bread aromas, and a savoury note that more than one taster described as pickle brine.

On the palate, this was quite peppery, with more oak but some sweetness too, described by one taster as vanilla and Christmas pudding flavours, and marzipan by another – all characteristics that made this a classic rye for matching with sweet vermouth in a classic Manhattan.

40% abv, £25/70cl, Edrington-Beam Suntory UK, 0333 016 1910

Knob Creek Rye, US

Another inarguably classic example of rye whiskey, but this time at a far punchier abv. Knob Creek kept things honest with predominant flavours of rye and wood, well balanced even at that strength, and resulting in an approachable, versatile spirit with some real exuberance.

Tasters described salted caramel, soft fudge and a hint of citrus too, with some wood influence to help wrap things up with a dry, spicy finish. It was picked out as being well suited to both Manhattans and Old Fashioneds, with maybe a higher ratio of sweet vermouth than usual for the former.

50% abv, £40/70cl, Edrington-Beam Suntory UK, 0333 016 1910

Kyrö Single Malt Rye Whisky, Finland

In retrospect, it’s unsurprising that a Finnish whisky made from 100% wholegrain rye tore up the rulebook here, confounding our tasters with a flavour profile that had little in common with anything else in the line up. Spicy rye and other grain notes were present on the nose, along with some oak influence, but this was joined by a vegetal character, and a note that reminded one panellist of red wine. Similar spice and oak notes followed on the palate, joined by a treacle-toffee sweetness, and a slight acidity too. Definitely not your great-grandfather’s rye whiskey, but an interesting one to experiment with behind the bar.

47.8% abv, £67.95/50cl, Maverick Drinks, 01892 888443

Minor Case Straight, Limestone Branch Distillery, US

Everything about Minor Case’s production supports our panel’s appraisal of it as a straightforward, easy-drinking and approachable whiskey, from its relatively low rye content of 51% to its mere two years of ageing, as well as its finishing in sherry casks.

The result was a flavour profile consisting of honeydew melon, apple and sultanas with vanilla, clove and cinnamon spice, some honey, brown sugar and caramel sweetness too. Perfectly good for drinking on its own.

45% abv, £49/70cl, Woolf Sung, 020 7836 8800

Millstone 100 Rye, The Netherlands

The 100 on Millstone Rye’s label refers to its proof, the number of months spent in 100% new american oak and its percentage of rye. For all of that, our tasters found this whisky from Zuidam Distillers to be quite approachable, with some sweet breakfast-cereal notes on the nose, accompanied by candyfloss and vanilla, and a touch of spice.

The palate proved more concentrated and complex, with rich sweetness and vanilla countered by some oak, and a decent hit of spice. While some thought this ideally suited to a classic Manhattan, there were suggestions that it could be used in a Vieux Carré too.

50% abv, £78/70cl, Marussia Beverages UK, 020 7724 5009

Spirit of Toad Oxford Pure Rye Spirit, England

This young, triple-distilled spirit might not have spent enough time in a barrel to be called whisky yet, but that didn’t stop it from impressing our tasting panel, offering a credible light and versatile alternative to classic rye whisky.

A combination of abundant fruit and a slight smokiness caused it to draw some favourable comparisons with mezcal, while other panellists identified caramel, honey, Turkish delight and sanded wood notes, as well as some telltale rye spice in the background. In spite of its light flavour profile and minimal time in oak, some of the tasters suggested this for sipping neat.

40% abv, £39.95/70cl, The Oxford Artisan Distillery, 01865 767918

Woodford Reserve Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey, US

‘A classic well-aged rye,’ began one taster in summary of Woodford Reserve’s Kentucky Straight Rye Whiskey. The grain was front and centre on the nose here, with abundant cereal and bakery notes, as well as the suggestion of rye bread in the background, all backed by some spice aromas too.

That spice carried through to the palate well, joined by some caramel and light brown sugar notes. The combination would do excellent service paired with sweet vermouth and orange bitters in a Manhattan, said our tasters, who also envisioned this in a Brooklyn.

45.2% abv, £47.75/70cl, Bacardi Brown-Forman Brands, 020 7478 1300 

The Manhattans

The Classic
Knob Creek Rye

Among the classic-style US ryes in the line up, this was the panel’s choice for creating a benchmark Manhattan. Tom Finnon nailed the brief, going with the classic 2:1 ratio of rye to vermouth, but using equal parts Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and Punt e Mes. The former, he reasoned, provided complexity, while the latter contributed more sweetness and body. Four dashes of Angostura completed the drink.

‘The Knob Creek is the captain of the table,’ he explained. ‘With that abv it has the broad shoulders to carry the rest.’
That’s a key to rye in classics such as these, where not only high strength but characterful spicy rye notes stand up to complex aromas from other ingredients.

The New Classic
Adnams Rye Malt

While Adnams Rye offered no shortage of classic rye whiskey cues, it ultimately had a character of its own, and this required a different approach when it came to mixing a Manhattan with it.

For Adam Wilson, this meant rethinking the vermouth for the job. ‘With high-rye and high-abv whiskeys you’re looking for something to stand up to them, but for this whiskey that’s not necessarily the case,’ he explained, picking up a bottle of Lustau. Its fruity character and relatively reserved bitterness were well suited to the rum-like notes some had identified in the Adnams Rye. He added a dash each of Angostura and orange bitters to two parts whisky and one part vermouth, and finished the
drink off with a discarded grapefruit twist.

The result was a capable and interesting take on the classic, and showed the spirit in a good light, but was a touch too sweet for some tasters. For them, he stirred a second version, with 50ml Adnams to 15ml Lustau, and swapped out the bitters for Peychaud’s. This proved gutsier than the former, but many agreed that a ratio somewhere between the two would be just right.

Admiring the sweet and buttery flavour profile of the Adnams, Adam Binnersley considered it to have more than enough character to stand up to powerful Antica Formula instead. Using the standard 2:1 ratio, together with Angostura, he ended up with a rich and substantial Manhattan. The polar opposite of what some other panellists were up to with the other English rye in the tasting...

The Lighter Option
Toad Oxford Pure Rye Spirit

If this young rye spirit surprised our tasters in the blind tasting, then it was a positive revelation when it came to mixing. Stepping behind the bar, Lee Jones proposed a risky experiment – a Perfect Manhattan. But when 50ml of Toad was mixed with 20ml of Lustau Rojo Vermouth, 10ml of its Bianco equivalent, and two dashes of Angostura, the result was better than anyone expected – an aperitif Manhattan.

But Jones wasn’t done yet with challenging Manhattan preconceptions. Emboldened by the success of his Perfect Manhattan, he proceeded to make a 2:1 Dry Manhattan with Lustau Bianco, as well as Angostura Bitters. ‘That’s a Spring Manhattan,’ commented Jones, as some panellists suggested that this might have been the best drink of the day.

‘There’s potential to use some of the less traditional ryes to make seasonal Manhattans,’ said Charlie Bissett. Putting that into practice, she adapted the earlier Perfect Manhattan to create one for summer, with 25ml of Lustau Bianco and 20ml of Lustau Rojo, 40ml of Toad, and both Angostura and orange bitters.

The Curveball
Jack Daniel’s Single Barrel Rye

Intrigued by its unusual flavour profile, yet unmistakable rye whiskey character, our panel were keen to put this expression through its paces in some drinks. Realising that a unique whiskey deserved a unique take on the classic Manhattan, and no doubt wanting to highlight the spirit above all else, Daniel Alonso elected for 50ml of the rye to 15ml of Cocchi. In addition to two dashes of Angostura, he added a barspoon of Fernet Branca.

‘I think a hint of bitterness from the Fernet will go well with the sweetness of the Jack Daniel’s, to try to bring out some of that maple character,’ he explained. ‘I like my Manhattans spicy, so if the whiskey was hotter and heavier I might have used something like Montenegro, but this whiskey already has sweet notes.’

This was a masterclass in adjusting a classic to suit the base spirit, and a successful experiment too. Panellists agreed that the end result worked well, even if you wouldn’t necessarily describe the drinks as classic Manhattans.

Panel comments

Daniel Alonso Roxy Ball Room
‘The traditionalist in me will always have a soft spot for a classic US Rye Manhattan, but today showed that great results can be achieved by experimenting with the formula. When a new take on a style presents itself, there’s always a good opportunity for experimentation. The broadness in flavour profiles coming from non-traditional producers points to an exciting future for the category.’

 

Adam Binnersley Mojo
‘When I first started making Manhattans, the rye category was pretty much Rittenhouse or nothing, so I’ve always been open to using other whiskeys. There is still space for a classic rye and sweet vermouth version of the Manhattan, but these new kids on the block present a great opportunity to experiment with different combinations and flavours.’

 

Charlie Bissett Roland’s
‘The best thing about making Manhattans is they can be so individual to the person drinking them, and this is made so much easier with new rye whiskeys becoming more available. New products also mean that classic cocktails could become a lot more versatile – I’d be intrigued to try a lighter, fruitier Manhattan in spring or summer!’

 

Clinton Cawood Imbibe
‘The surprise result here wasn’t necessarily that you can improve on this already-excellent classic, but that you could unlock some new drinking occasions for it by switching up the rye and vermouth. If new rye styles mean more opportunities to sell Manhattans, that’s no bad thing, and there’s no shortage of new ryes to experiment with.’

 

Tom Finnon The Domino Club
‘Like all spirits, rye is benefitting from ever-increasing levels of awareness and professionalism in the hospitality industry, and like American whiskey as a whole it’s unrecognisable compared to two decades ago. If a guest ordered a Manhattan from me and didn’t specify, I would always go 2:1 classic, but playing around with the Toad and Adnams Rye proved there’s scope to make brilliant takes on the classic.’

Lee Jones Sandinista Group
‘I was really pleased to finally make a Dry Manhattan that I enjoyed! It’s incredibly easy to build a quality Manhattan with the flavours that you associate with that classic drink, but with the less traditional styles of whisky you have to put in a bit more thought.’

 

Adam Wilson The Liars Club Group
'Most people, bartenders and guests alike, would probably like to think they have an ideal Manhattan, but in reality that ideal probably covers a broader spectrum than we think. Because I chose such an unusual spirit and a fairly unusual vermouth as well, my starting point was to use a fairly standard 2:1 recipe, but our second run showed that even the tiniest modifications could alter the drink completely.'

 

Thanks to the team at Sandinista for hosting the tasting, and for all their help on the day. Thanks also to Speciality Brands and House of Angostura for providing vermouth and bitters.

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