The Art of the Manhattan (The Old School)

I highly encourage those who haven't had a Manhattan, or who have not tried the different variations of it, to experience them all. They are all magical in their own way and need to be appreciated for their own merits.
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Last week a young man in his twenties came in and sat down at the bar. I greeted him, and asked him what he wanted. He replied, "I'll have a perfect Makers Manhattan up." Well, I must admit I was surprised and yet tickled by his order. The old adage of "never judging a book by its cover" was clearly appropriate here. Not only did I not expect him to order such a drink, but I was thrilled that he knew exactly how to order it. It wasn't because it was a Manhattan, but rather because it was a Perfect Manhattan which is sadly, rarely ordered these days.

I methodically made him his drink and brought it to him twisting a fresh lemon peel skin side down over his drink. What ensued was a conversation that led me to conclude that I needed to write this next post about the greatest cocktail -- at least in my opinion -- ever invented.

This astute customer proceeded to tell me how frustrating it was to go out to bars and/or restaurants and not get what he wanted. He told me that when he ordered a Perfect Manhattan that he would often get a frown back and the bartender would reply smarmily, "Well I'll try!!"

The implication is clear; the bartenders mistakenly assume that he is ordering a Manhattan with the request to make it perfectly. Now, that might not seem so amazing or hilarious to some readers, but before I get into the Manhattan and all its permutations, let me inform you that the customer and I both live on the island of Manhattan where the drink was invented, and yet he still wasn't able to get what he wanted. When I asked him the names of some of the establishments where he received these responses and got inferior Manhattans, I was somewhat shocked. I won't mention the names here, or anywhere for that matter, out of respect for those institutions, but they were some of our best restaurants, and if this were true of Manhattan in the heart of New York City, what would we find elsewhere? He told me that he'd had shaken Manhattans, or when he ordered a Dry Manhattan the bartender just put in less Sweet Vermouth. These disasters are unacceptable, so let me help clear up the many misconceptions about the great Manhattan Cocktail.

The Manhattan was apparently invented on the island of its name in 1874 at The Manhattan Club. The occasion was a party for New York's newly elected Governor. The party was hosted by Jennie Churchill who was the mother of Winston Churchill, Great Britain's Prime Minister during World War II and later. The original recipe called for Rye Whiskey, Sweet Vermouth, and a dash or two of Angostura bitters with a maraschino cherry garnish.

The substitution of Bourbon for Rye Whiskey came later, and it seemed to be regionally based. The South being the home of Bourbon naturally ordered it that way more often than their Northern brothers did. I grew up in Cleveland, and that is where I started my bartending career. I moved to Manhattan in the early '80s and in both cities Rye was the base of choice. It was much to my surprise when I moved to San Francisco in the early '90s and worked the bar at Aqua on California Street, that Bourbon was the choice for discerning Californians who ordered Manhattans.

So, all that aside, what is a Manhattan and how should it be ordered and made? I thought you'd never ask!!

First: Call your base either Rye or Bourbon and your brand of choice. i.e. Canadian Club, Maker's Mark, etc. (eg: "I'll have a Maker's Manhattan")

Second: If it's a Manhattan skip to the Third step. If you want it Dry or Perfect, now is the time to say so.

Third: Up or on the rocks.

That's it, pretty simple right? But, let's examine what the difference is between a Manhattan, a Dry Manhattan, a Perfect Manhattan, a Rob Roy, and a Southern Comfort Manhattan. (Yes, there is such a drink and it was very popular back in the '60s and '70s.)

First of all -- and this is very important -- a Manhattan is never, ever, shaken unless the customer requests it. Remember my last post mentioned that the only time you shake a drink is when it has juice or cream or a substance other than alcohol. Drinks that contain nothing but alcohol should never be shaken, they are stirred. A Manhattan will be foamy when shaken and that is not how to make this drink. A barspoon, a julep strainer, and a mixing glass with ice are all you need.

A Manhattan is: 2 oz. Rye or Bourbon; 1oz Sweet Vermouth with a few dashes of Angostura bitters. It is stirred in a mixing glass and strained with a julep strainer which is used with mixing glasses into a chilled cocktail glass and garnished with a cherry. Traditionally, a maraschino cherry was used, the same kind you got on top of your banana split, but today all the top houses use marinated cherries which are dark and are usually Italian. They can be found in any gourmet shop, and they add a nice complexity to any Manhattan. I highly encourage anyone to use them.

A Dry Manhattan doesn't mean less Vermouth, but rather the substitution of Dry Vermouth for Sweet Vermouth. The proportions are the same as in a Manhattan, but the garnish is a lemon twist instead of a cherry.

A Perfect Manhattan isn't one that is as good as the bartender can make, rather it is dividing the proportions of Vermouth evenly between Sweet and Dry. The garnish is a lemon twist. Do you see a trend here? Whenever you use Dry Vermouth, a lemon twist is used.

A Rob Roy is a Manhattan made with Scotch Whisky (sic). The proportions are the same as in all of the variations described above. You are simply adding a different base.

A Southern Comfort Manhattan is made with Dry Vermouth, not Sweet and is garnished with a lemon twist.

There you have it. I highly encourage my readers who haven't had a Manhattan, or who have not tried the different variations of it, to experience them all. They are all magical in their own way and need to be appreciated for their own merits. Note for example how using Bourbon instead of Rye will make the drink slightly sweeter due to it being primarily corn based. Also, I encourage you to buy good Vermouth and keep it refrigerated once you open it. It is wine based and will lose its flavor profiles if stored improperly. Buy small bottles first so it stays fresher. I also encourage you to drink Vermouth on the rocks by itself to really appreciate how excellent and complex it is. Then you'll know which one you like.

I'll see you when I see you!