I’ll Take Manhattan

The Manhattan is a simple cocktail—typically three ingredients—but its simple structure allows a lot of variations and alternative ingredients that can make excellent cocktails. The Manhattan is a popular cocktail. The Manhattan is a great cocktail.

Of course, since the classic Manhattan uses whiskey as its base liquor, its main appeal will be to whiskey drinkers. For many decades, the whiskey employed in a Manhattan was likely a Canadian whiskey—Seagram’s V. O., Canadian Club, or for a fancy Manhattan, Crown Royal—or a bourbon. The sweet vermouth something basic like Martini & Rossi, and the old bitters standby Angostura Bitters. And, of course, that bright red cocktail cherry. Rocks or up.

According to Wikipedia:

A popular history suggests that the drink originated at the Manhattan Club in New York City in the early 1870s, where it was invented by Dr. Iain Marshall for a banquet hosted by Jennie Jerome (Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston) in honor of presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden.

But like many cocktail origin stories, there’s plenty of reason for doubt, and in this case, the doubt comes from the fact that Jennie Jerome (a.k.a. Lady Randolph) was in France at the stated time, waiting to birth ol’ Winnie. Like most of the early cocktails, the creation for the Manhattan is lost in the mists of time. Since sweet vermouth is an essential ingredient, and since sweet vermouth—or at least what we think of as sweet vermouth—came about in the late 18th Century, and in Italy at that, it is safe to assume that the Manhattan didn’t show up until the 19th Century, and the records suggest that it was well into the second half of the eighteen-hundreds before this particular cocktail started making the rounds. In 1844, Noilly Pratt began to export to America, 1868 sees Martini Rosso (sweet) to these shores, and Dolin (dry) wins a gold medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Expo in 1876, and the first mentions of vermouth in cocktail books date to 1884. Back then, the likely whiskey would have been American straight rye whiskey, as this was the most common whiskey, although bourbon was around, too.

What makes a Manhattan so good, even the Manhattan of your parents or grandparents, with the blended whiskey and neon red garish garnish? The sweet vermouth rounds out the whiskey, providing not just some sweetness, a fuller mouth feel, and broadened flavor; add aromatic bitters and you are adding more tastes in both the high range and in the bass notes of the drink. This combination works well with just about every kind of whiskey, including some cheap ones, so, indeed, what is not to like?

I occasionally get a Manhattan order that requests a sweeter profile, which means a bigger measure of the sweet vermouth and a lighter hand on the bitters, but the variations on the Manhattan form are multitudinous, and I’ve recently made the old style using Crown Royal, and then, a day later, a Southern Comfort version (I’m not here to judge… at least out loud!).  I once had a delightful conversation with a guest who had asked for a Manhattan using one of the most delicious bourbons I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know, Widow Jane (still my top-spot favorite, but rather pricy), and he felt that I had been too liberal in my use of aromatic bitters, arguing that the depth of botanicals in the Antica Carpano sweet vermouth was itself contributing some of the bitters profile and therefore there was an overwhelming of the wonderful bourbon. I loved the ensuing conversation because he was knowledgeable and made an excellent point. These days, I make an effort to take into consideration the type of whiskey used in a Manhattan, especially when one is using an expensive pour.

A particularly delightful Manhattan form variant, Royalist, is currently on our cocktail menu, and this cocktail builds from the Perfect Manhattan sub-form, which at its most basic mixes sweet and dry vermouth to slightly lighten the drink, and which most typically garnishes with lemon twist and/or the cherry. Our Royalist starts with a great (fresh!) dry vermouth and has no sweet vermouth, although a small amount of Benedictine liqueur brings a touch of sweet, along with the undertone of the herbs and scents of this terrific liqueur. The nose of this Manhattan variant is set off by the use of peach bitters, while maintaining the lighter aspect of this drink.

But, of course, there is good, there is better, and there is best. The Castle Street Café Manhattan goes with the best: great bourbon or rye, top-of-the-line sweet vermouth, a bit of Grand Marnier, and aromatic bitters supplemented with a touch of orange bitters. Oh, and a real marischino cocktail cherry.


Woodford Reserve Bourbon or Woodford Reserve Rye, Antica Carpano Sweet Vermouth, Grand Marnier, Angostura Bitters, CSC Orange Bitters

  • 2 oz. Woodford Reserve Bourbon or Woodford Reserve Rye
  • 1 oz. Antica Carpano Sweet Vermouth
  • Splash of Grand Marnier
  • 2-3 dashes of Angostura Bitters
  • 1 dash, CSC Orange Bitters

Ingredients into shaker, ice, stir, strain into chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a dropped Luxardo Marischino cherry.

I’ll take Manhattan. Missing ingredient in this picture: Grand Marnier

Woodford Reserve is solid, well-made bourbon, but Buffalo Trace is also well-matched for a Manhattan, and at an even better price per bottle. If you like a Manhattan routinely, say, before dinner during your work-a-day week, Four Roses (Yellow Label) or Evan Williams (Black Label) is good go-to bourbon to try, and your bank balance will thank you.

There has been an explosion of ryes these days, and most of the new-comers come in between $30-something and $80-something, but Wild Turkey Rye has been around for decades (although somewhat difficult to find in liquor stores), and is a great cocktail rye that stands up to but doesn’t outrun the recipe… or break the bank. Rittenhouse 100 is another well-priced rye choice that also mixes well. Bulliet Rye is around $40 per liter bottle and another excellent Manhattan rye. Quite of few of the exotic (i.e., very expensive) ryes carry flavor characteristics that can be too insistent and overpower the balance of the Manhattan, and many new ryes brands are also young ryes, which can contribute a gamey element to the taste, which adds insult to the injury to one’s wallet, but my rant about “Marketing-driven” ryes is for another post.

One final point concerning Manhattans, which is the proliferation of shaking instead of stirring. I am will always be a Manhattan stirrer (unless otherwise requested by the guest), because stirring doesn’t foam the drink. It is a mystery to me why shaking has taken such hold that I’ll run across this error even a bars focused on cocktails that really should know better; my favorite theory is that shaking a drink is thought to look cooler, although my “shaking face” falls somewhere between strained and neutral, which is fairly distant from any sort of “cool” look, I’m fairly certain.

The Manhattan is a reliable cocktail that with care (stir!) and the best ingredients can be the best of cocktails, even while the basic structure of this drink is flexible and has spawned or synchronously co-existed with interesting and delicious variants, including the Brooklyn Cocktail and the Bronx Cocktail.

Not surprising, after all: New York is a big city.

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