What can you say about the Manhattan except that it is a fundamental standard classic cocktail that when all is said and done is probably in the top five of nearly all cocktailians. The silky smooth texture of a chilled Manhattan flows over the tongue filling the mouth with flavors that is greater than the sum of its ingredients. The blend of the charred oak, spiciness, of Bourbon; the sweet, herbal, and slight caramel flavor of Sweet Vermouth; and the indescribable flavor of bitters combine to make a cocktail like none other.
The Manhattan was first made with American Rye whiskey and is said to have been invented in New York's Manhattan Club in 1874 at the request of Winston Churchill's mother, Lady Randolph Churchill (Jennie, pictured right), to celebrate the newly elected governor Samuel J. Tilden. (7) The name of the bartender who concocted the new drink is unknown and unfortunately the Manhattan Club, which stood at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 26th Street, is no longer in existence. (8) Like many stories of cocktail origins the validity of this tale of the Manhattan's beginnings has been brought into question, but I like this story the best.
The Manhattan's whiskey changed from Rye to Bourbon during or shortly after the time of prohibition when the production of Rye whiskey was scarce or non-existent. (9) During prohibition (1920-1933) (6) Canadian whisky was primarily used because it was what was available. After the glorious repel of the Eighteenth Amendment bars wanted to serve American whiskey again but Rye was unavailable due to the distilleries being shutdown and its long aging process. Bourbon distilleries were able to get back up to production faster and distribute their product by way of the Mississippi river and thus Bourbon found its way into the Manhattan. Some say Bourbon distilleries never stopped producing and sold by prescription from doctors to stay in business. Over a million gallons of whiskey was consumed each year during prohibition for "medicinal purposes." (6) To this day there are not many producers of Rye whiskey, but there are a few brands worth trying out. I recommend Van Winkle Family Reserve Rye if you can find it.
One last note on the whiskey used in a Manhattan, it is the still popular to use Canadian whisky in northern United States. This I believe is because Bourbon spread faster in the South due to river distribution method of the Kentucky distilleries. Then there came the misconception that Canadian whisky was a substitute for Rye whiskey, which is not the case at all. Rye whiskey must be made from at least 51% rye; Canadian whisky has no such restriction and is often a blended whisky. However if in the North don't be surprised if the Manhattan is served with Seagram’s or Crown Royal.
Although the Manhattan is an icon of cocktails right up there with the Martini it is very difficult to find an establishment that will serve up this beloved cocktail correctly. The five major flaws I encounter are as follows:
- Lack of bitters – Bitters is an essential ingredient in a Manhattan. I don't care what you may have learned at Bartending School or from a fellow bartender, the Manhattan has bitters. There is a large misconception that bitters is only used for another wonderful Bourbon cocktail the Old Fashioned and not in Manhattans, but the fact of the mater is bitters belongs in both.
- Vermouth is not a scary radioactive substance – Vermouth is not scary and is a completely potable liquid, I even drink it straight at times. Unlike the Martini where it unfortunately became common place to put little if any vermouth in the cocktail, Manhattan drinkers actually expect Sweet Vermouth in their drink. Don’t be shy pour a good ounce or more, we will actually drink it and thank you for it. We promise to not come hunt you down after we become radioactive. Between 3:1 and 2:1 Bourbon to Sweet Vermouth is expected.
- Stirred not Shaken – Manhattans are intended to be a smooth drink. Shaking cocktails adds tiny air bubbles to the that change the texture of the drink. I know it sounds hard to believe that it can make a difference, but it does. The first sip of a well stirred chilled Manhattan with the proper proportion of ingredients is like drinking silk. The bubbles produced by the shaking do go away after a few a little while, but by then the drink has warmed. The Manhattan should be stirred between 15 to 20 seconds.
- Dusty Vermouth – Vermouth is like wine; once you open it, it goes bad. I've seen bottles of Vermouth pulled out to make my Manhattan coated in dust... I usually change my order to something else. For home bars or bars with low volume Vermouth use it is better to buy the small bottles of Sweet and Dry Vermouth for freshness.
- Cherry Juice – The adding of cherry juice is meant for a Manhattan that is ordered with the modifier of Sweet. Cherry Juice is only added when a Sweet Manhattan is ordered. I believe many bartenders add the cherry juice in an attempt to cut the strong whiskey taste when in fact just stirring the cocktail the proper amount will do just that.
2.5 Parts Maker’s Mark Bourbon
1 Part Noilly Prat Red
3 Dashes Angostura Bitters or Fees Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters
Stir ingredients in a mixing glass with ice for 15 to 20 seconds. Then strain into a well chilled cocktail grass. Garnish with a cherry if you're hungry.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia