The Four Gospels: The Manhattan

manhattan
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:

THE MANHATTAN

  • 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 broad drink, to go back to one of my hobby horses. A woman who drinks Manhattans, especially a younger woman, is someone to be reckoned with. Should you see a cocktail glass of clear amber before a lady, it is a good indication that her sense of self is centered on her humanity, not her femininity. She will likely be as comfortable socializing with men and women. This is a huge (and modern) stereotype, but it seems to work in this era. A woman who drinks so bold a drink as a Manhattan is not a chick. Like the Manhattan itself, she is true to herself, not the whims of her surroundings. In fact, this last applies to both men and women in this era: There are precious few (but magnificent) watering holes on Earth where ordering a Manhattan will make man or woman part of the herd.
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.
lighthouse
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:
inquisition_monty_python

UPDATE: Welcome to folks coming here from TimeOut New York’s The Feed, Edible Crafts, and that great broad Meg, at Queenie Takes Manhattan! Check out the other Gospels of Cocktail while you are here!

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

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

8 Comments

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  • “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.”

    Oh no! The garnish is anything but cosmetic! A good brandied/maraschino cherry adds a sweetness to the last sips, giving the drink a nice sense of completion. When I’m making them, too, I often finish with an orange twist for brightness, or – what the hell, let’s go all out – a drop or two of absinthe…

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  • I can’t believe I left out the orange peel option! I need to write an outline….
    As for absinthe in addition to, or more often instead of, the bitters, I think it’s too much. There are too many competing, heady aromas in my opinion.
    Oh, and if you add absinthe, it’s NOT a Manhattan! Heretic….

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  • I don’t think I’ve ever noticed anyone garnishing a Manhattan with a lemon peel.
    And I think the Manhattan is the least tinker-with-able of the Four Gospels, as opposed to the Daiquiri, which is the most. So get orthodox, Jac, and break out the cherries!

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  • “Oh, and if you add absinthe, it’s NOT a Manhattan! Heretic….”

    I mean, it’s not what people would normally call a Manhattan, but the old versions do some strange stuff. The Savoy has that second recipe with more vermouth than whiskey and some curacao or maraschino on top of that, which does not look like a Manhattan to me at all.

    But! The Manhattan in The Flowing Bowl had a bit of absinthe and a bit of maraschino on top of the usual 2:1. That’s old enough that I don’t feel like a heretic, per se… more like a gnostic? =P

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  • Gnostic, exactly.
    It takes the church time to settle early texts down, establish the correct tone, and burn all the alternates to run the still. If you want to make your drinks from recipes found buried in Italian farmer’s field….
    BTW, I love Flowing Bowl. I should dig a bit in it for this series, if I were into research or things like that.

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