Does Liquor Makes the Difference? Matching the Right American Whiskey to Your Manhattan

The Number Ten Fourteenth Symposium TalkTails took place at Number Ten, and the event was a different approach than usual, with the usual being tasting different whiskeys or exploring categories of cocktails.  The Number Ten Fourteenth Symposium TalkTails was about tasting different whiskeys in the otherwise same cocktail recipe, the Manhattan.

Any type of cocktail will have a flexible recipe, but the specifics is what makes an instance of that kind of cocktail.  That’s obvious.

What isn’t so obvious is why one might use a particular Bourbon or Rye or other type of American Whiskey in his or her Manhattan, and that has something to do with how much you might like a specific whiskey, but other factors come into play, too.  Here are some other factors:

  • Type/brand of sweet vermouth;
  • Condition of sweet vermouth;
  • Ratio of sweet vermouth;
  • Type(s)/brand(s) of bitters;
  • Ratio(s) of bitters;
  • Type and brand of whiskey;
  • Ratio of whiskey;
  • How the ingredients are combined, chilled, and poured;
  • Choice of garnish;
  • Choice of up or on the rocks

The Manhattan recipe is basic: two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, and some dashes of aromatic bitters.  Mix these together with lots of ice, stir until cold, and pour into a cocktail glass or ice-filled rocks glass, garnish with cherry, and enjoy.

But the Manhattan has many possible tweaks to match a drinker’s taste, and, of course, there are dozens of Manhattan variants that involve some substitute ingredient or another, such as The Brooklyn, which uses an Italian amaro instead of the sweet vermouth and the bitters. There is the Perfect Manhattan, which dries out the flavor profile a bit by using half part of dry vermouth and half part sweet vermouth, and there are those who prefer their Manhattan less sweet by using less sweet vermouth (three-quarters part of sweet vermouth is emerging as a common tweak).  We’d explored Manhattan variants a couple of times in past TalkTails.

The Experiment

With this TalkTails, we explored variations in the whiskeys used, but we will kept everything else—ingredients, ratios, mixing technique, garnish, glass—the same:

  • 2 oz. American Whiskey (see brerakouts below)
  • 1 oz. Carpano Antica
  • 2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Ingredients combined, ice added, stirred until cold, and poured “up,” garnished with a dropped Luxardo cherry.

The pours for each of the participants were a one-third measure, since there were to be five tastings, and the target was to pour less than two full cocktails in this session (basically, the consumption was 1.6 cocktails over one and a half hours. There is nothing good gained from imbibing an excess of alcohol.  Really.  I don’t mean to say there aren’t times when more is better, but certainly not in a place from which you are likely to depart by automobile, because, well, safety first.

The only difference among the five tasting samples was the whiskey used. Some whiskeys are great neat, and almost all can do well with some water or ice. Some whiskeys have simpler or more complex flavor profiles, some have higher proofs, and may be sweeter or spicier, have less oak or more. The question we sought to answer was how the different whiskeys we selected for this tasting work with the other ingredients in the Manhattan.  These five whiskeys selected were the following:

  1. Evan William White Label Bottled in Bond Bourbon
  2. Wild Turkey Rye 101
  3. Pikesville Rye
  4. Bernheim Wheat Whiskey
  5. Johnny Drum Private Stock Bourbon

Evan Williams White Label (BiB)

This high-corn Bourbon is bottled-in-bond, which means that the whiskey is at least four years old and is bottled at 100 proof.  This Bourbon is what we use in Number Ten Manhattan (Bourbon version). Evan Williams White Label is a very nice Bourbon, and its high-ish proof helps it stand against the sophisticated and complex sweet vermouth we use, but I’ve recently starting to wonder if this high-corn Bourbon may not be complex enough in relation to the Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, and then there’s the splash of Grand Marnier and the use of double bitters (aromatic and orange), and I was interested to see what the participants thought about this Bourbon in balance with these other complex ingredients.

Evan Williams Bottled in Bond is a great value and tasty, although this Bourbon is not very complex.

Producer: Heaven Hill (Heaven Hill Distillery)

Mash Bill: Corn: 75%; Rye: 13%; Barley: 12%

Age Statement: ~5 Year Old

Proof: 100

Tasting Notes: Nose has caramel, candied fruit, wood, vanilla, and hints of maple and grain; Palate carries creamy caramel, toasted corn, black pepper spice, French vanilla, with hint of leather; Finish is medium-long, dry, and spice driven, but with notes dark fruit and wood.

I have no doubt that the Number Ten Manhattan is a very good Manhattan. I love it.  Our guests love it.  I tend to go with the Rye option, where we use Wild Turkey Rye 101, but the Bourbon Number Ten Manhattan is our most popular cocktail.

But lately, I’ve been wondering if Evan William White Label Bottled in Bond Bourbon offers sufficient complexity to balance the other rich ingredients. Evan Williams White Label is a very-well made Bourbon, and at four-year barrel time, it is smooth, and at the bond-in-barrel’s 100 proof requirement, it has the strength needed.

The consensus of participants confirmed my growing concerns about using Evan Williams BiB: while everyone enjoyed the drink, many described this Manhattan is a bit sweet, which is no surprise given that Evan Williams BiB is a “high corn” Bourbon, with corn making up 75% of the mashbill, and the sweetness largely comes from this. Other comments included the sense that this combination was a bit simple, with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth driving the cocktail. Everyone was happy with the cocktail, but as the other tastings took place, the participates’ first impressions of simplicity grew clearer.

I still very much like Evan Williams BiB, and this Bourbon is one of the best values, at $18, retail, for a 750 ml bottle.  As an everyday choice (or “daily”), Evan Williams BiB is hard to beat.  Unfortunately, this product can be a bit difficult to find on the shelf, as its distribution is hardly universal.

Wild Turkey Straight Rye 101

Wild Turkey produces their straight high-corn Ryes in two proofs: 81 and 101, the standard proofs plus one, mainly done as a marketing gimmick if the Whiskey press is to be believed.  The 101 Rye is a solid Rye, with the sort of spice one expects from a Rye whiskey, and while different aged barrels are used, and therefore age statements are not applicable, the ages of the Rye whiskeys selected range from 6-7 years by many reports, and the extra years in the barrel make the 101 version yet more spicy and a bit more oak, while the 81 version carries a more floral taste profile.

With its higher proof and stronger spice, Wild Turkey Straight Rye 101 is a solid choice for the Number Ten Manhattan (Rye version), since these characteristics hold up against the other complex ingredients.

Wild Turkey Rye 101 is a excellent choice of a cocktail Rye, although this whiskey is also great as a sipper. You may have trouble finding this excellent value Rye.

Producer: Wild Turkey, Campari Group

Mash Bill: Corn: 37%; Rye: 51%; Barley: 12%

Age Statement: N/A

Proof: 101

Tasting Notes: Nose is lively with caramel, honey, grain, with hints of mint, baking spices, and oak; Palate has a lot of rye spice and grain, with hints of mint, oatmeal, and baked apple; Finish is medium, hot, spicy, cinnamon, trailing off with wood notes.

While I am rethinking Evan Williams BiB in the Number Ten Manhattan (Bourbon version), I remain pleased with our choice for our Rye version: Wild Turkey Rye 101 is a solid Rye, and it has become something of a darling of the Whiskeyrati, which has made availability a bit tight at times.  (I just looked the bottle up on the distributor portal and see that it is currently unavailable in my region!  I hope that this changes (I’m confident this Rye will become available again, but then I’m an optimist.)

I can confidently report that most of the participants want this Rye whiskey to keep flowing, although a few tasters thought the taste was too spicy for their taste, but that is why the good heavens provide the Bourbon alternative.

Pikesville, Straight Rye Whiskey 110 Proof

A high-corn Rye, Pikesville has 6 years in the barrel, but a higher proof , at 110 than Wild Turkey Rye 101, at, well, 101 proof.  Pikesville is the longer-aged version of the well-known Rittenhouse Rye that is highly acclaimed as a cocktail Rye.

In an earlier TalkTails we used Pikesville in our house Manhattan, in lieu of Wild Turkey Rye 101, and we thought the swap created such as tasty Manhattan that we nicknamed this version the Number Eleven Manhattan.  More complex than Wild Turkey Rye 101, and offering yet higher proof, we think it is a better balance with all the other complex ingredients of our house Manhattan.  In this tasting, we used a simpler ingredient list, and I wondered if Pikesville needs the more complex formulation to not be under-balanced.

Pikesville Rye is a favorite of mine, and its use in Manhattan brings the popular cocktail turned up to eleven.

Producer: Heaven Hill (Bernheim Distillery)

Mash Bill: Corn: 37%; Rye: 51%; Barley: 12%

Age Statement: 6 Year

Proof: 110

Tasting Notes:

Nose offers sawdust and sweet creamy vanilla and strong cherry bubble gum notes, which turn into heavy corn, mixing with rye spice and cinnamon apple; Palate has cherry cola, underneath are hints of rye spice, vanilla, and summer fruits; Finish provides long rye spice and hints of sweet notes, nutmeg, and oak notes.

Even with the simpler recipe, Pikesville Rye was a big hit.  Pretty much universally. Pretty much getting me thinking of adding to the cocktail menu The Number Eleven Manhattan, because, well, who says you can’t joke and yet be serious?

So why does Pikesville work so well in a Manhattan that uses a flavorful sweet vermouth?  Complexity.  This high-corn Rye has enough sweetness to it, but it is the combination of smoothness and complexity on palate and the higher proof provide assertiveness that challenges the Carpano Antica sweet vermouth extremely well.

Bernheim Kentucky Straight Wheat

A high-corn Wheat whiskey, Bernheim offers a different flavor profile than Ryes or Bourbons.  Can we taste that difference in a Manhattan?  Is the Wheat flavor profile a good match for Manhattan?

Bernhaim Wheat Whiskey has a majority of wheat in its mashbill, a fairly uncommon, but quite delightful American Whiskey. Should be tasted and using this whiskey in a Manhattan is, well, refreshing.

Producer: Heaven Hill

Mash Bill: Corn: 37%; Rye: 0%; Wheat: 51%; Barley: 12%

Age Statement: 7 Year

Proof: 90

Tasting Notes: Nose of vanilla and sweet wheat, with a hint of mint; palate of cinnamon, spearmint, muted butterscotch, and lemon and orange zest; finish short, crisp, with mint and citrus hints.

I think that Bernheim Kentucky Straight Wheat is a terrific whiskey—well-made, well-aged, and interesting in its mashbill.  The way this Wheat whiskey works in a Manhattan is also interesting, as the participants discovered.  The effect of Wheat whiskey (and, also, Wheated Bourbons) on the palate is odd, but in a great way: the front of the palate (as your take the whiskey in) comes across as sweet—even sweeter than high corn Bourbon—but as the whiskey comes to the mid- and back-palate, the taste becomes dry and even more dry.

Participants experiences this, although some coaching in terms of terminology by me was helpful in their interpretations of the tasting notes.  Bernheim Kentucky Straight Wheat has the thinnest or lightest taste of the selections of whiskey but was generally thought of as tasting. Several participants suggested that the Wheat whiskey could be their choice in the Summer season, as a “refreshing” Manhattan, a concept both strange and accurate.  For my part, I’m now interested in how Wheat whiskey may work in highballs because there is something in the “refreshing” taste character of this style of whiskey.

Johnny Drum, Private Stock Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey

Johnny Drum is from Bardstown distillery, Willet, although started back in the 1960s Johnny Drum was made as a wholesale label, but these days the whiskey line is generally available retail. Recently, Johnny Drum Private Select dropped its 15 Year Age Statement, probably because it needs to blend different barrel ages to keep up with demand. This Bourbon is among the small batch Bourbons made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (Willett); other include Pure Kentucky XO, another of 4 small batch Bourbons produced by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd, Bardstown, Kentucky. Its siblings are Noah’s Mill, Rowan’s Creek, and Kentucky Vintage. KBD, Ltd Bourbons also include Vintage and Old Bardstown.

Nonetheless, the consensus is that Johnny Drum is sourced and not distilled at KBD; the source is most often considered the Heaven Hill distillery (which is literally right across the road from Willet). In January 2012 the Willett Distillery began distillation once again, so the sourcing need is obvious.

This is another 101 proof small batch Bourbon, but it is much more complex than Wild Turkey Bourbon 101. In my opinion, Johnny Drum Private Stock needs a bit of water to open and calm the complexity.

I was curious to see how this whiskey balances with the basic Manhattan recipe we’re using, and I was thinking if this Bourbon whiskey may make the right choice for Number Eleven Manhattan (Bourbon version).

Once unavailable or limited, Johhny Drum Private Stock has become something of a darling among Bourbon fans, mainly because of this whiskey’s complexity, which, as it turns out, works extremely well in Manhattan that uses flavorful sweet vermouth such as Carpano Antica. No longer presenting an age statement of 15 Years, there is still a lot of aged Bourbon here, and a surprisingly modest price–if you can find it.

Producer: Johnny Drum Distilling Company/Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (Willett)

Mash Bill: N/A

Age Statement: N/A (Recently dropped 15 Year age statement)

Proof: 101

Tasting Notes: Nose starts with assertive ethanol, with hints of tobacco and caramel, oak, oats, grains, light vanilla, cinnamon, little earthy-ripe peach, cedar, and saw mill; Palate is rich, and offers sweet caramel and vanilla first, then tobacco and leather follow, with a touch of smoky char along with a hint of custard, a little dark chocolate bitterness and a touch of grassy flavor round things out; Finish is medium-length, spicy, and dry with notes of cinnamon, charcoal, leather, slight bitter dark chocolate.

Well, after having participants talk about their tasting this recipe, I’m no longer wondering about the choice of Johnny Drum Private Stock for the potential Number Eleven Manhattan: the consensus was enthusiastic and clearly Johnny Drum Private Stock has the complexity to balance the other ingredients without being overwhelmed.  The biggest challenge may be price—Johnny Drum Private Stock has become a secret selection among Bourbon lovers that is increasingly not a secret, and the price has been rising.  The good news is that the Bourbon had a quite reasonable retail price, so the climb, if remaining modest, still offers good value, running between $35-$45. Will this whiskey remain commonly available?  That may be it’s biggest problem.

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