The Perfect Manhattan
The first time I ordered a Manhattan cocktail was in the mid-1980s at the bar in Annie’s Paramount Steak House on 17th Street in Washington, DC. A Manhattan! Lord, I remember it sounded très chic, a symbol of gay urban life beyond the collegiate bourbon and Coke world I was trying to leave behind.
Then I saw Annie, the welcoming proprietress in a faded house dress who often tended bar back in those days, reach under the counter and haul out a yellowed plastic jug from which she poured amber liquid to the top of the rim of a swimming pool-sized martini glass. She dropped in a plump maraschino cherry and the drink slightly overflowed. It is often said we taste a cocktail first with our eyes. So much for urban sophistication….
I’m sharing this memory because it seems to me to embody the spirit of the Manhattan, an unpretentious cocktail mixing three simple ingredients—American whiskey, vermouth, and Angostura bitters—that was born in and named after a very pretentious city.
There are two competing stories about the origin of the Manhattan. The famous one says the drink was created in 1874 at the private Manhattan Club founded by J.P. Morgan for a swank party honoring Lady Randolph Churchill. The problem with this story is that Lady Churchill was in Europe at that time giving birth to her son Winston. Yes, that Winston Churchill. The myth has persevered because the competing story just isn’t very interesting. The cocktail has persevered because it is interesting and tastes good.
Yours truly loves a Manhattan and tends to gravitate towards a “Perfect Manhattan”—2 ounces Kentucky bourbon whiskey, ½ ounce sweet vermouth, ½ ounce dry vermouth, and two dashes Angostura bitters, garnished with a maraschino cherry and served in a stemmed glass. My preference is for Kentucky bourbon because its corn base means it’s a tad sweeter than rye whiskey, which brings a bit more spice to the cocktail.
Though I tend to favor classic cocktails, I’ve got an open mind. It was in that spirit that I invited two long-time friends—Manhattan enthusiasts who recently traded in their DC digs for a coastal chateau—to sit by my fireplace on a cool autumn evening and taste test some interesting-sounding takes on the Manhattan I’d recently come across.
The first combined rye whiskey with dry vermouth, maraschino cherry liqueur, and Ramazzotti Rosato, a fresh and fruity Italian aperitif of herbs, hibiscus, and orange blossom. It’s popular with hip Brooklyners, so naturally there was no garnish. We agreed it was quite tasty and uniquely different, sort of a f@!k you to the Manhattan, which is also so Brooklyn.
The Algonquin—rye whiskey, dry vermouth, pineapple juice, and a lemon twist—sounded better on paper than it tasted in person. One of my taste testers took two sips and poured it out, stating it was “a drink that ought not be drunk.”
A Manhattan riff we all enjoyed was The Charleston, a newish cocktail that combines Kentucky bourbon, Madeira wine instead of vermouth, and an orange peel garnish. It’s a nod to that city’s historic love affair with Madeira wine. We thought it would taste even better if we were sitting in a parlor wearing white gloves and a fancy hat.
I mixed up a few more Manhattan riffs then turned the cocktail shaker over to my guests who had come armed with a few bottles of bitters to make a special seasonal Manhattan they call Holidaze Sauce.
Here’s their recipe: Into a cocktail shaker full of ice, add 2 ounces of Kentucky bourbon, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth, 2 dashes of orange bitters, a dash of Aztec chocolate bitters (not just any chocolate bitter will do), and a dash of cinnamon bitters. Give the mixture a gentle stir and then strain/pour into a chilled stemmed glass. Add a maraschino cherry, shave a little orange zest over the top, and then use the orange to rim the glass like you mean it.
It’s good—the kind of good that makes you want to put on a cashmere sweater and fancy loafers and listen to Cole Porter tunes. Or watch a football game. It’s a fantastic sip for colder weather and a perfect drink for the holiday season.
And that my friends is how you know you’re in the presence of a classic cocktail. It tastes good. It’s memorable. It’s easy to tweak and still maintain its original identity. It’s why the perfect Manhattan is the one you make yourself.
Happy holidaze. ▼
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.