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The Manhattan

The history of the Manhattan is as hazy as a Saturday night tall tale wearing a Sunday morning hangover. The 'Manhattan Club' claims its origins to this day - mixed up to honour Lady Churchill’s attendance at a function in the early 1870s. She happened to be heavily pregnant and in Europe at the time. (But don’t let facts get in the way of your chat. After all, it is cocktail history and we were all too drunk to remember anyway). Perhaps the most trustworthy version is the one free of hyperbole: A guy named Black came up with it in the 1860s. It was a cocktail. He made it in Manhattan.

Along with its esteemed, whiskey-based bedfellow, the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan featured as one of the six basics in David A. Embury’s bible for the boozy side of the bar, "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks". A Manhattan is made with whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters - a simple statement that belies the extraordinary complexity and harmony of this classic that ticks all the boxes for the square one definition of “Cocktail” – a boozy tipple balanced and enhanced by the addition of sugar, bitters, water and/or citrus.

But here’s the rub - which whiskey? Which vermouth? Which bitters? Much like the Negroni, the Manhattan is a difficult drink to stuff up - three ingredients right? But when you choose the right pairing… tweak the ratios a little… Voila! The Vermouth does the dance of the seven veils for the Whiskey and you understand why this drink is a point of pride for many professional bartenders.

So which pairings are going to work? This question raises a point of contention – Bourbon or Rye? You see, the Manhattan (like the Aviation) became victim to a disappearing ingredient. In this case, not a subtle accent to the drink, but the Rye Whiskey used as the base became unobtainable and the recipe evolved to Bourbon or Canadian Whisky.

Things have changed. Rye is back and we would like to draw a line here – USE RYE. Bourbon (please use a high Rye content label) and Canadian Whisky will make a serviceable drink, but it just won’t sparkle like Rye. Most of the good Vermouths tend to swarm over the drink and you end up with a too soft, too sweet dish. So USE RYE and choose something that will stand up in the mix – higher proof and spicier styles can be better.

The Vermouth should complement the Rye, share its toys, and use its “inside voice”. For heavier, dryer styles of Rye choose weightier Vermouth. Lighter Rye, Bourbon or Canadian Whiskies require more delicate modifiers. Bitters are a personal preference. Never feel bound to the ratios and tweak what you need to get the precision you desire. A heavy hand on the bitters bottle can help balance the sweetness of Bourbon based drinks for example. It is this very flexibility that makes the Manhattan one of the most riffed on drinks in the list. Dry, Half Dry, Perfect, Cuban and Tijuana Manhattans along with the Bobby Burns are just a few of the dozens of variations.

Below is a tried and tested recipe for a classic Manhattan: ingredients and ratios attributed to Jeremy Oertel - Death & Co, New York (Yes - this is a BIG drink. It will fill a Cocktail/ Martini glass and make 2 serves if using a Coupe)

  • 75ml Bourbon or Rye Whiskey (Try Rittenhouse or see suggestions below).
  • 30ml Carpano Antica Formula sweet vermouth
  • Two dashes of Angostura bitter
  • Maraschino cherry for garnish

  • Method: Stir over ice, strained into a chilled glass, garnish and serve.