Friday, April 19, 2013

Cocktail of the Week: The Manhattan

In a serendipitous convergence, the ninth anniversary of this blog coincides with the fiftieth – the fiftieth! – Cocktail of the Week installment. I’m going to celebrate the occasion by paying tribute to the mixed drink you are most likely to find in my glass. And why are you nosing around my glass, anyway? Get yer own. Bar’s over there.

Along with the Martini, the Manhattan is one of the twin titans of the cocktail kingdom. It is enshrined as one of David Embury’s six basic cocktails in his The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. Kingsley Amis declared it “an excellent drink,” even though it “is in practice the not very energetic man’s Old-Fashioned.” Greater scholars than I have plumbed its history, with many debunking the print-the-legend tale that it was born in New York’s Manhattan Club at an 1874 party thrown by Winston Churchill’s mother in honor of newly-elected governor Samuel Tilden. There is a good chance, though, that the Manhattan Club is indeed where it was first poured.

Quoting the estimable bartender/historian Gary Regan: “(T)he Manhattan is the best cocktail on earth. It’s so simple, but so darn complicated.” Of course, in Chinese the word for complication is also the word for opportunity. (OK, I know it’s actually “crisis” and “opportunity,” and I’m also aware that that saying isn’t technically true. But work with me here. I’ve cranked out fifty of these things.) The Manhattan consists of three ingredients – whiskey, vermouth and bitters – and altering any one of those elements transforms the entire drink. My golden ratio is below, but you owe it to yourself to find the balance of ingredients that works best for you. All cocktails are matters of personal preference, none more than the oh-so-malleable Manhattan.

Whiskey. The Manhattan began as a rye cocktail. For decades, though, it was made with bourbon. It’s only with the recent rye revival that the pendulum has swung back. I still enjoy bourbon Manhattans, but the original will always be my first choice.

Vermouth. “Perfect” Manhattans, featuring equal amounts of rosso and dry vermouth, are now popular, but I have to confess I’m not a fan. Dry vermouth tends to flatten the whiskey’s taste. Plus sweet vermouths offer a great avenue for experimentation. Lately I’ve been making Manhattans with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, based on a recipe from 1891 and boasting strong notes of cocoa that you won’t find in any other members of its family.

Bitters. I ordered a Manhattan at a bar in Los Angeles once and the chagrinned bartender told me he didn’t have bitters. Any bitters. At all. I did not immediately cancel the order and walk out, mainly because a) I was young and didn’t know any better; b) there were no other bars close by; and c) the place had been a regular haunt of the Rat Pack and I couldn’t bring myself to take my foot off the same rail where Dean Martin had once rested a loafer. (Later, I stood up to use the restroom and literally walked into William L. Petersen, who could not have been nicer. Here ends my best Hollywood story.)

Learn from my rookie mistake, people: it ain’t a Manhattan if it ain’t got bitters. Angostura is the standard in this drink with orange running second, although nowadays you’re spoiled for choice. I often reach for Berg & Hauck’s Jerry Thomas Bitters, a modified version of the formula created by the dean of American bartending. I’ve paired the Cocchi Vermouth di Torino with Fee Brothers Old Fashion Aromatic Bitters. Their savory blend of flavors runs the aforementioned hints of chocolate up the flagpole so high you can’t help but salute. The resulting Manhattan has an extraordinarily dense taste unlike any I’ve encountered, so rich I’d never make it for a neophyte – and yet it’s simply another combination of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters.

Oh, and a cherry. I should probably say a word about the garnish. Man up and get the cherry, just make sure it’s the right cherry. Not one of those sickly sweet maraschino jobs out of a bottle; veteran bartenders have told me that in the bad old days of the 1970s, Manhattans were not only served with these gaudy neon ringers but with some of the juice from the jar slopped in for good measure. You can make your own by steeping sour cherries in maraschino liqueur or you can go to the source – Luxardo, primary producers of the liqueur – and buy a jar. One you sample the genuine article, you won’t be satisfied with anything else. Cheers.

The Manhattan

2 oz. rye (or bourbon) (but ideally rye)
¾ oz. sweet vermouth
2 – 3 dashes of bitters

Stir. Strain. Garnish with an authentic maraschino cherry.