Cocktails 101 | The Manhattan

11/19/2014 | Amy Tibbals
Darby Doyle

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If ever a cocktail could be said to have a season, The Manhattan screams chic winter urban elegance. There’s something inherently both frenetic and festive about this boozy, brightly-hued beverage that pairs perfectly with non-stop holiday feasting from November through New Year’s Day. You know it, we love it all: turkey, dressing [okay, 'stuffing' for the Yankees], latkes and salmon, Jell-O salad, day drinking, pumpkin pie, apple strudel, latent sibling rivalry, whiskey hangovers. It’s a flexible and flavorful cocktail that any harried host can pull together in a flash either by the glass or by the pitcher, without using rare ingredients or complicated technique. Win-win. 

The historical debut of The Manhattan is famously muddled, as many institutions in the Empire State have given themselves credit for its conception. One of the more popular of the apocryphal stories claims that it was invented in honor of Winston Churchill’s mum at the swank Manhattan Club for a party she hosted in the 1870s. Since she was giving birth to bouncing baby Winston in Oxfordshire at the time folks claim this happened, we’re not buying the hype. Some say the cocktail was used to toast NY Governor Samuel J. Tildon’s entry into the presidential campaign, again at the Manhattan Club. No matter the roots, the drink had a solid rep as New York’s posh cocktail of the Gilded Age: John Pierpont Morgan famously quaffed a Manhattan right after stock trading closed each day. Because it’s made almost entirely of booze [and its distinctive flavor depends on using high-quality spirits], The Manhattan fell out of favor during Prohibition since it was really fucking difficult to get ahold of a bottle of well-aged rye whiskey, and fresh imported vermouth was rarer than hen’s teeth. Instead, folks were drinking sweeter cocktails, often mixed with fruit juices and syrups specifically designed to cover the taste of lower-quality liquor.

The Manhattan made a brief surge in popularity after WWII, when it came to symbolize all that was post-war sophistication and mid-mod decadence served in a sexy stemmed glass. However, both bartenders at home and at the club used increasingly higher ratios of sweet components, both because rye whiskey production in the U.S. barely recovered after Prohibition, and to appease shifting flavor trends at the whimsy of the fickle, American palate. The Gilded Age’s deceptively simple stir of rye and sweet vermouth over ice morphed into a drink anchored by lower-proofed bourbons or sweet blended whiskey [see the Southern Comfort Manhattan ad, below, from a period where apparently only men were allowed to sit in chairs]. Perhaps the most egregious variance came with the blatant and widespread addition of a big ‘ol slug of red dye #5 syrup straight from the Technicolor maraschino cherry jar to the mix, making J.P. Morgan’s well-balanced Manhattan a thing of the past. Until now.

The resurgence of cocktail culture in this era [hallelujah] means that if you go to a top-notch bar, you’re most likely going to be served a top-notch Manhattan, and it’s going to be made in the classic style. We talked with Amy Eldridge, one of our COLLECTIVELY adored barkeeps at hands-down one of our favorite downtown imbibing intuition’s, Bar X, about how to replicate making this Gilded Age beauty at home, and make it really goddam well. Here’s how to do it up right.

THE BOOZE: Rye whiskey is the way to go when making Manhattans. Rye gives a nice spice and backbone to the drink, whereas bourbon or blended whiskies [while excellent in many other preparations] generally lack the requisite sass for this kickass libation. Bar X uses Bulleit Rye for their standard, and we heartily agree. If you can get your hot little paws on it, try some Rittenhouse Rye or Old Overholt for that old-time flavor. Keep it local with High West Double Rye with delicious results.

THE VERMOUTH: Quick – where is your vermouth stored right now? If you didn’t answer “in the fridge,” your Manhattans [and Martinis, and Negronis, and any other vermouth-based cocktails] are doomed from the start to taste like shit. Whether in the sweet or dry version, vermouth’s a fortified wine-based concoction that can and will go rancid, and fast, you slackers. Like, within a couple of weeks at room temp once the bottle is opened. The classic Manhattan is made with sweet vermouth [see recipe below for a Perfect Manhattan using the dry stuff]; Amy E. recommends Dolin as a great choice for the home bar, but notes that there are some very tasty imported and U.S.-made artisan vermouths now available. Use the best vermouth you can afford and keep it in the fucking refrigerator. You don’t need all those moldering leftovers, anyway.

THE BITTERS: Angostura bitters set the standard for Manhattan making, and with good reason: they’re easy to find and have that distinctive funky bitters “punch” while retaining great balance. After you’ve made a few Manhattans, start playing around with this component of the drink, subbing in some orange or cherry bitters, or even a bit of absinthe for a New Orleans spin on the cocktail. There are countless delicious variations playing with the bitters and vermouth combo. “There’s no ceiling on Manhattans,” says Eldridge; “you can play around with the flavor and still stay true to the drink.” Keep in mind that when your bitters bottle is brand new, “a dash” ejected from the bottle by pressure can be almost twice as large by volume as from an almost-empty bottle. Because of, um, science.

THE ICE: So, why do drinks in bars often taste crisper or “cleaner” than the ones made at home? Usually the culprit is home ice machines, which even if using filtered water dump the moon-shaped rocks right next to the fish sticks and frozen pizza. Now the ice tastes like…yeah, fish sticks and frozen pizza. This versus Bar X’s ice, which tastes like pristine, glacier-fed streams and mountain-fresh sunbeams. Whatever latent freezer flavahs you’ve got going on end up right in your glass, detracting from that lovely whiskey. Also, the shape of the ice makes a big difference: big cubes melt slower than small chunks due to surface area.

THE GARNISH: A cherry. So, make it a really great cherry. If you can’t get your hands on superlative Luxardo cherries [they’ve got ‘em at Caputo’s Market and Williams-Sonoma], look for natural, dark cherries jarred in very light syrup found in the canned fruit section of the market [not alongside the tonic water and nasty pre-mixed sour syrup]. Save those glowinthedark bar cherries for the stem-tied-with-your-tongue trick at last call. Simultaneously trashy and impressive. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

THE TECHNIQUE: 1) The Manhattan doesn’t need complicated bar tools, just a measuring device for the booze, pint drinking glass [your stirring container], long-handled bar spoon, and a drink strainer of some sort to keep out ice chips. 2) Pre-chill a 4 oz. coupe or martini glass in the freezer until it’s nice and frosty, and pull it out just before serving. Not yet. 3) To the mixing glass, start with your cheapest ingredient and move to your heavy hitters in this order: bitters, vermouth, rye. 4) Add a combination of bigger pieces of ice to chill the drink quickly, then add some smaller chunks [crack a few cubes in the palm of your hand by whacking them with the back of a spoon] to dilute the drink down to one part freezing-cold water ratio/two parts whiskey/one part vermouth. This happens by either letting the drink just sit for about a minute and melt down, followed by a micro-second stir, or if you are in a hurry, stir with a bar spoon to agitate it thoroughly without breaking up the ice. There are a million YouTube videos available to help you nail the technique. 5) Finally, strain the cocktail into the chilled serving glass. Some people prefer their Manhattan shaken—which makes for a foamy chipped ice layer on the surface of the drink and a cloudy beverage—or served over ice. Either might be tasty, but they’re not the purist’s Manhattan. Stirring and straining give The Manhattan its characteristic brilliant clear color and uniform dilution. Don’t mess with that shit. 6) Garnish with a cherry.

Now let's stir it up, fancy:

The Manhattan [classic]: 2-3 dashes bitters, 1 oz sweet vermouth, 2 oz rye, stirred with ice for a count of twenty or so [about 30-40 quick revolutions]. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a cherry.

A “Perfect Manhattan” [a type of cocktail using equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, not just one that’s superbly made]: 2-3 dashes bitters, ½ oz sweet vermouth, ½ oz dry vermouth, 2 oz rye, stirred with ice and strained into a chilled, coupe glass. Garnish with a nice-sized chunk of lemon zest first pinched over the surface of your drink in a very satisfying little cloud of citrusy goodness.

The Green Point [a modern classic interpretation of The Manhattan by bartender Mickey McIlroy when he was bartending at New York’s Milk & Honey. Amy Eldridge said, “he made me one and it changed my life.” Prepare to be wowed]: 1 dash orange bitters, 1 dash Angostura bitters, ½  oz yellow Chartreuse, ½  oz sweet vermouth, 2 oz rye. Stir over ice, strain into a coupe or martini glass, and garnish with lemon zest.

Manhattans by the Gallon [this edition of “How to get your family shitfaced in large batches” courtesy of Amy Eldridge. Perfect for the holidays!] Take a very large freezer-safe pitcher or hefty gallon jug, and fill it with one bottle sweet vermouth, two bottles rye whiskey, and the equivalent of one bottle filtered water. Put upright in the freezer for at least a couple of hours or overnight [it won’t freeze because of all of the alcohol, but may get a little slushy]. Portion out cocktails directly into chilled glasses as needed, with a couple of dashes of bitters dropped into each glass first, and a cherry garnish to finish. Or, fill a pretty glass pitcher with the booze and one of those wicked cool ice insert thingies so your Manhattans stay icy cold without getting diluted. Let your guests serve themselves until you call them a cab and boot their ass to the curb. Cheers!

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