I think it only fitting that our exploration of classic cocktails should begin with one of the grand masters: the almighty Manhattan, a drink that anyone with any pretension to mixology ought to know backwards and forwards. Perhaps second only to the Martini in popularity and name recognition, this is an older and richer formula, one that has spawned many offshoots and variations. Learn the Manhattan, and you learn whole categories of cocktail.
Legend has it that this drink was originally invented for a banquet hosted by Winston Churchill's mother to celebrate the election of Samuel J. Tilden (who would later run unsuccessfully in the 1876 Presidential election) as governor of New York. The trustworthy David Wondrich debunks this by noting that Baby Winston was being born and christened across the Atlantic at the time, but it's an interesting story. It is conceivable that the name derives from the Manhattan Club where this supposed party was held in 1875; that's much harder to disprove and quite reasonable besides. Regardless of its origin, the eventual marriage of vermouth and whiskey was almost inevitable; whiskey was one of the few spirits commonly available, and "vino vermouth" was becoming quite faddish by about 1870.
It wouldn't have taken much experimentation, either, since the Manhattan can be crafted using a bare handful of ingredients. Despite its simplicity, one of my favorite aspects of this cocktail is its receptivity to further recombination by swapping out one of its constituents. Some of these are classics in their own right, and will be discussed further below. For now, let's stay on task, with one of the easiest examples of high-proof perfection to be had.
Assemble as follows:
2 oz American whiskey
3/4 - 1 oz sweet/red/Italian vermouth
2 dashes bitters
Combine the above over ice, stir briefly, and strain into a cocktail glass.
Now, as with anything so simple, there are a few caveats. Or maybe we'll call them considerations, since you can combine pretty much any whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters in the above proportions and have a palatable beverage. But this is my guide, and I'll be damned if I stop anywhere short of the cream of the crop, the tip-top, the absolutely superlative Manhattan. So, if you aim for the same, here are a few things to think about when you mix:
Consideration #1: Whiskey
Quite simply, what kind? I specify "American" above only because this is an entirely different animal with Irish or Scotch whiskeys, which we'll get to later (side note: I take no notice of this "whisky" nonsense, so just deal). That still leaves the field pretty open. Indeed, there is considerable variation in the miscellaneous guides I dug through as research; some specify bourbon, others rye. The aforementioned Mr. Wondrich also offers advice on proof, recommending a 100-proof variety (or 50% alcohol by volume) over more common 80-proof models. I think this is extremely sound advice, and I also suggest that you use a whiskey worth drinking straight. There's not enough accent here to cover up cheap flavors, but there is enough to make a great whiskey really sing. If you're going to mix with the good stuff, this is the cocktail to make. Higher-end whiskeys also tend to be bottled at higher proof, so that's two birds with a single (if somewhat expensive) stone.
On the question of bourbon versus rye, call me indecisive. Quality and proof are the more important factors, so if you're faced with a middling 80-proof bourbon against a quality 100-proof rye, take the latter. The drink is old enough that it was certainly first made with rye, but most modern guides reference bourbon (probably due to the dearth of good rye whiskey over the last 30 years). Both bring good flavors to the party; bourbon its classic oaky-smoky sweetness, rye an assertive spicy edge. I like both of these, so all things being equal, I take indecisiveness to a new level and either split the volume between both varieties or use a so-called "high rye" bourbon. Notable high rye brands include Wild Turkey, Four Roses, Knob Creek, and my personal favorite Bulleit. Top-shelf "single barrel" varieties are available for them all and come highly recommended.
Consideration #2: Vermouth
The next ingredient in line is of course vermouth. There are a few important points to consider. For a classic Manhattan, it must be the Italian (red/sweet) style; yes, there are "Dry Manhattans" made with French style (white/dry) vermouth, but that's an entirely different drink. The Italian variety is almost certainly the kind originally used, since the other type wasn't in widespread circulation on the American continent at the time of the Manhattan's birth. It's a fortunate combination, since few others have quite the same synergy.
Even more so than with whiskey, quality is key to success with vermouth. There are plenty of cheap no-name brands, and I encourage you to avoid them in all your mixological ventures. There's simply no excuse when the good stuff doesn't cost that much more. Martini & Rossi is a reasonable standby, but the delightful Dolin is my go-to if you can find it. Should you wish to pull out all the stops, a top-shelf vermouth will be very welcome here; Cocchi Torino is a good choice, and even better is the venerable Carpano Antica (though keep in mind that you'll be spending for the privilege). Regarding storage, I always keep mine in the fridge, tightly capped. Remember that vermouth is a fortified wine, and like other wines it will go off if exposed to sufficient light, heat, and oxygen. Italian vermouth is more protected than French vermouth by a higher sugar content, but it will succumb eventually. Refrigerated storage will buy you more time and keep your product fresher for longer, avoiding the muted flavors and bitter twang of the dreaded oxidation.
One final point on vermouth is proportion. You'll notice that I provide a range above. You want your vermouth to counterpoint the whiskey without overwhelming it; a good Manhattan is all about this lovely dynamic tension. So it makes sense that using a softer whiskey or a more assertive vermouth means adjusting the ratio. When using an 80-proof whiskey, dial back the vermouth to about 3/4 oz; to balance a higher proof, use a full ounce. If you're using a high-end, more aromatic vermouth (Cocchi Americano or Carpano Antica again) you can get away with 3/4 oz no matter your whiskey. If you've got an 80-proof whiskey and a full-flavored vermouth, you may want to go as low as 2/3 oz, though this combination would really just be wasteful. As a rule of thumb, I keep the ratio of whiskey-to-vermouth between 2:1 and 3:1, with minor adjustment for your specific brands and personal preference.
Consideration #3: Bitters
It's a testament to the flavor-boosting abilities of bitters that we need to mention them at all. Even though there are just a couple dashes present, a Manhattan falls completely flat without them. There are a lot of middling Manhattans mixed every day, but most of the truly terrible ones are the result of missing those key dashes of spicy, aromatic bitters. Don't make the same mistake.
The standby in 99% of American bars is good old Angostura, easily recognizable by the oversized white paper wrapper (often stained with red-brown smudges of errant elixir) and bright yellow cap. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this stuff, as proven by its prominence and near-singular survival into the modern age. It's rich and spicy, and in a Manhattan brings out the same characteristics of your chosen whiskey.
On the other hand, our modern mixological revival has brought a huge number of fine craft bitters into circulation, most of which I won't mention in posts here because most classic cocktails predate them. One making a comeback is the previously extinct orange bitters, an ingredient found in a surprising number of old recipes but which apparently fell prey to Prohibition. Before you proceed any further, go make sure you have orange bitters in your arsenal. My personal favorite is Regan's No. 6, which has a spicy and complex flavor; also common is Fee Brothers' version, which is bright and fresh. Plenty of others exist; no matter what kind you use, they lend a slightly sweet and citrusy character. Since vermouth is often flavored with citrus peel, this tends to play very nicely in a Manhattan. However, you still want that nice rich Angostura character to go with your whiskey, so in the spirit of indecision (yet again) I tend to use a single hearty dash of each. Because the bitters are an accent (albeit a crucial one) you can do the same, use all Angostura, or pick another aromatic bitters of your choice. As with vermouth, feel free to add more if that's what it takes to balance your brands at hand.
Consideration #4: Technique
One last very important thing when making a Manhattan is exactly how you assemble it. Here is a fundamental, non-negotiable principle: this cocktail must always, always be stirred. If the majority of poor Manhattans are ruined by omitting bitters, the remainder are ruined by shaking them (some bartenders are just shaker-happy, and they are dead wrong, especially here). There are two reasons for this ironclad rule, both based on preserving the quality of your whiskey. First, you don't want this drink to be too dilute. Too much water softens the whiskey's bite, batters the vermouth into a shadow of its former self, and takes away the silky texture of the finished product. Second, you don't want it to be too cold. Over-chilling has a way of dampening the pleasant spicy-sweet flavors of good whiskey, which you don't want. Yes, you could just wait for your drink to warm up, but who wants that?
So, you stir, and you don't stir too much either. Stirring chills less rapidly and introduces water less quickly than shaking. It also leaves the final product pleasantly crystal-clear, without any of the hazy air bubbles caused by agitation. I also suggest that you use the largest ice cubes you can, to chill with minimal surface area and dilute as slowly as possible. I like 2-inch square cubes (for this and many other applications) but you can use average-size freezer-tray ice too. Just stay away from those little chips churned out by commercial machines, or the cracked cylinders sold in bags at liquor stores and convenience stores. Those will dilute way too quickly, throwing off the composition of your Manhattan. I'm not a man who counts the number of revolutions when I stir, but I'd estimate about 25-30, which is probably about half of that required for a properly chilled Dry Martini. In general, aim for chilled, not cold. Don't be afraid to pause every ten rotations or so to check the temperature.
Once you've hit the sweet spot, strain this into a chilled cocktail glass, or a small old-fashioned glass if you prefer. I've been in some bars that use the latter because it's a "man glass", which seems specious but is fine by me. You can garnish, if you want; I like a good brandied cherry (not those neon-red orbs of glucose masquerading as "cherries") and a twist of orange peel works too, particularly if you've used an orange bitters. You also want to leave it untouched by additional ice, for the same reasons that you don't shake. A single large cube is okay, but I find it brings the temperature down too much.
Thusly assembled, sip slowly; live so rarely affords such perfection, and the universe demands that you enjoy the moment.
Worthy Variations and Substitutions
As I said at the beginning, the Manhattan opens up whole classes of cocktail. Here are a few close cousins to try:
- Rob Roy: Swap out the American whiskey for Scotch and assemble as above. Either single malt or blended is fine, just use something you like and stay away from anything too peaty. Aromatic bitters such as Angostura are preferable to orange bitters.
- Dry Manhattan: As mentioned above, swap out the red vermouth for a quality white. More assertive varieties are good here; I will also sometimes add a little dash of simple syrup to balance things out.
- Turf Club: This is one unearthed by David Wondrich in Imbibe! as an example of a proto-Martini, probably the result of bartenders plugging varied spirits into a basic recipe. The original calls for equal parts Old Tom gin and sweet vermouth with a few dashes of aromatic bitters; adjusting for modern proof, I think 2:1 is preferable. I would identify this as the parent cocktail of both the Martini and the Martinez (which adds a dash of maraschino liqueur to excellent effect).
- Star Cocktail: Another very easy substitution; simply replace the whiskey with apple brandy. This would classically be applejack, another American spirit, but French calvados would be nice too. Aromatic bitters or a creole bitters such as Peychaud's are best; both make for interesting variations, but I wouldn't suggest both at once.
Conspicuously absent from this list is the Martini, but that's a completely different drink and separate post. Don't worry, we'll get there. For now, fix yourself a Manhattan and relax.