I only drink on two occasions: when I’m thirsty and when I’m not. And on both of those occasions, my go-to drink is the Manhattan, a classic cocktail that is easy in its formulation but complicated in its perfection.
To steal from the WSJ, the Manhattan is a boozy, sophisticated drink that embraces the energy of the city after which it's named. It is dark and moody: if the Martini is James Bond's drink, the Manhattan is Bruce Wayne’s.
The basics are easy to grasp:
2 oz. bourbon or rye
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes bitters (Angostura being the norm)
Garnished with cherries or lemon twist
**Stirred (NEVER shaken) over ice and then strained into a glass with garnish
But given the choices available for each ingredient (which make all the difference), this drink can make for some interesting experimentation (and given the amount of experimentation you do in one evening, can also make for an interesting evening). One night, two of my cocktail comrades, “The Financier” and “The Texan”, were over and we made nothing but Manhattans, each with one of four different bourbons/ryes (Old Overholt, Templeton, Maker’s 46, and Rowan’s Creek), one of three different vermouths (Carpano Antica, Cocchi, or Dolin Rouge), and using several choices of bitters (Angostura, a homemade orange, Xocolatl Mole, and Boker’s). Needless to say, each drink was subtly different, but magnificent in its own right.
Given the purpose of this blog, I aim to upgrade your quality of life by helping you elevate and refine your choices in life. Therefore, what lies below is a list of the baseline standard ingredients that you should use in your Manhattan and never agree to accept anything less.
2 oz. Bourbon or Rye
For your bourbon or rye, the trick is to go with a choice that is higher than Jim or Jack, but does not rise to the level of blasphemy when you use it in a stirred drink. Some choices that (by many nights of “taking one for the team”) I have discovered work well for bourbon are: Maker’s 46, Buffalo Trace, Rowan’s Creek, Woodford Reserve, Four Roses, and Dickel #12. For rye, I prefer Bulleit, Rittenhouse, Templeton, or Old Overholt (although, we all agreed that the OO gave off an “earthy” almost “dirt-like” flavor). These labels tend to have a flavor and body that stand up in the drink (as opposed to, say, Basil Hayden’s that is too weak) without standing out (like Noah’s Mill or Booker’s which knock you on your ass).
1 oz. Sweet Vermouth
I became a true lover of the Manhattan when I discovered real vermouth. Now many of you likely have an old bottle of Martini & Rossi or Noilly Pratt, lying around, which raises two issues. The first is that vermouth is a wine and, therefore, has a short shelf life. It should be refrigerated and used (or replaced) in about a month. It should not be collecting dust on the corner of your bar.
The second, and frankly more important, is that you have not yet discovered vermouth. My eyes (and my cocktail world) were opened the day that the bartender at the now defunct Momofukku Bar Bar gave me a sip of Carpano Antica. I quickly ran out, plucked down $30 for a large bottle and have never looked back. And while I typically reach for that bottle, I have also stocked my fridge with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, Dolin Rouge, and Vya (although I have come to conclude that Vya tends to be too citrusy for a proper Manhattan). They all make for a sophisticated drink that is worlds above the standard. If you need some help, check out this handy site.
2 dashes bitters
There are so many bitters out there that I am not sure where to even begin (my own home bar currently features over 20 types). Of course, the standard in a Manhattan is Angostura. But who is here for the standard? Try mixing it up with Boker’s, Fee Bros. Whiskey-Barrel Aged, Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole, or Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla Bitters, just to name a few. As I overheard at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic Gala, “bitters are to mixologists what salt and pepper are to chefs.” Play around and experiment. I have even been known to skip the bitters and put in .25 oz. of Fernet and make a Fanciulli cocktail (my relationship with Fernet will certainly be the subject of future postings). You can’t go wrong (well, that’s not true, I have found that I can’t do anything with Dutch Colonial Bitters and, following my friend’s lead, I gave my bottle away).
My personal preference
With all of these choices, I have decided to be the southern gentlemen that I am and give you some starting points (after all, that is why you are reading).
My favorite for a standard Manhattan is:
2 oz. Bulleit Rye
1 dash Angostura
1 dash orange bitters (50/50 mixture of Fee Bros. Orange and Reagan’s Orange)
Topped with a pick of Luxardo cherries (although recently I have become a lemon peel convert)
However, if you come to my home bar (and you are welcome anytime), I am likely to stir you the following concoction:
2 oz. Rittenhouse Rye
1 oz. Carpano Antica
2 dashes Bitterman’s Xocolatl Mole bitters
**stirred and strained into a coupe glass that has been rinsed (or sprayed with an atomizer) with Ardbeg scotch [I have found that rinsing the glass with a peaty, Islay malt scotch adds a whole new element to the cocktail]
Lately, I have adopted the white whiskey trend for the summer, which adds a whole new dimension to the drink:
2 oz. High West Silver Whiskey
1 oz. Dolin Blanc Vermouth
1/2 oz. Benedictine
2 dashes orange bitters
Top with sparkling water
Garnish with an orange peel or lemon twist
As you can see, there is a reason that the Manhattan has been likened to “liquid jazz.” The combinations are endless and each makes for fantastic cocktail (again, if used in the correct proportions. I won’t even begin to discuss my cocktail at the Westin in D.C. last week that was made with a shot of Maker’s and a rocks glass filled to the top with Noilly and no bitters). And if you are ever in Manhattan and are looking for someone to drink a Manhattan with, just let me know. I’m always up for one - as long as it is on one of the two occasions…
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