I’ve been fascinated for a while with the concept of the four bedrock drinks of cocktailia. Each is based on one of the four foundation spirits upon which classic drinking lore is laid: Gin, Bourbon, Rum, and Brandy. I refer to these cocktails as The Four Gospels. I’m not sure if I made this up, or if I read it elsewhere. I suspect I read it elsewhere, as I ain’t that clever usually.
This post is about the Gospel of Whiskey, the venerable Manhattan.
The Manhattan is the oldest of the four Gospels, appearing (almost certainly in Manhattan) no later than 1874, and quite possibly in the 1860s. There are several things about the drink that distinguish it from lesser cocktails, some objective, some subjective. Let’s look at them, shall we?
The recipe is remarkably durable, remaining largely unchanged in a hundred and forty years. Were the first Manhattan ever mixed plunked down before a modern Manhattan drinker, he or she would likely recognize and enjoy it. Here is the essential, classic recipe:
- 2 parts rye whiskey
- 1 part italian (aka sweet) vermouth
- 2 dashes aromatic bitters
Stir gently but extensively with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
The Manhattan is the most American of the cocktail Gospels. It’s base is American whiskey, versus the foreign or exotic qualities of gin, brandy, and rum. Yet it is also encapsulates the mongrel nature of America, with its old world immigrant vermouth. It is a simple drink, bold and straightforward. It has great and complex character, but little nuance. This is not a drink that “develops” as you go, but announces itself with the first sip. It’s quite powerful as well; treat it with respect, and it’s a great friend; screw with it, and it will hurt you.
The Manhattan is perhaps the quintessential
My observation is that the Manhattan is least likely to be the favorite Gospel for any given cocktail drinker, but it is the most likely to be a favorite.
Too old and too bold to ever be truly trendy again, yet as perfect an alcoholic construction as has been made, the Manhattan is like a rock upon the shore, weathering the forces of time, taste, and fashion, remaining an unchanged refuge for us all.
All that flowery maundering aside, the Manhattan, like the other Gospels, has its variations and its heresies. The chief question for the maker to answer is which whiskey is to be employed. The drink originated with pure rye whiskey, but is far more likely to be made today with bourbon. I think the main reason for this is simply that there is so much more quality bourbon to be had these days than rye. And quality whiskey is the critical element in a Manhattan. Each of the Gospels is the quintessential cocktail for its base spirit, so each naturally will benefit from using the best of the base that is available. For my part, I prefer rye in mine.
The next question is the ratio of whiskey to sweet vermouth. Two to one seems to be the original. I usually go three to one when using rye, and four to one when using bourbon, since that spirit is sweeter to begin with, and I like my drinks drier. I’m flirting with lightning here by suggesting so high a ratio of even four to one. See this article by Gary Regan wherein he names the Manhattan the King of Cocktails, and promises dire consequences for any mixologist who dares to go beyond four to one. Anywhere from two to four will be fine. Adjust it to your own tastes for your own drinking, and I’d suggest sticking with three to one if you are making one for someone whose tastes you don’t know.
The Manhattan is traditionally served up, but you can also properly shove one across the bar in a rocks glass, especially if it is hot out.
How about garnish? I usually employ a nice brandied cherry, but in this one instance I still sometimes use the little red superballs from the supermarket, since the garnish is entirely cosmetic in a Manhattan.
Now, let us examine the heresies. Cue the disapproving high priests, myself included.
Must you use bitters? Damn straight you must, or it ain’t a Manhattan, Bub! I mentioned this heresy in passing a few days ago in my review of the excellent Ocean Club here in Ohio. It is pretty common these days to omit even a single dash of the old Angostura in a Manhattan, and that is a big shame. Whiskey and vermouth without bitters, is an OK drink, but it ain’t a Manhattan, and it won’t be close to as good or as interesting.
Drinking culture, probably due to infection from those, ahem, wine people, is currently caught up in love with things that are
dry. It you are looking for a drier Manhattan, use less vermouth (but at least one in four!). Don’t use dry, french vermouth. This results in a
Dry Manhattan, which is a vastly inferior drink. Drink it if you like, I suppose, but don’t go telling people it’s a Manhattan, or you will deserve a visit from these guys:
Thus endeth Manhattan, The Book of Whiskey.
Here are the other posts here relating to the Four Gospels of the Cocktail:
The Daiquiri, The Book of Rum
The Martini, The Book of Gin
The Sidecar, The Book of Brandy