Like DJs locked in battle pulling samples from the most obscure records in their milk crates, many bartenders across the country try to one up each other by using the most exotic spirits and mixers they can get their hands on.
So in this day-in-age of ridiculously complicated cocktails, the simplicity and pure genius of the Manhattan truly stands out.
The drink—a mix of American whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters—is more than just the sum of its parts, and its depth and complexity would be hard to replicate with a recipe two or three times as long.
Perhaps that’s why the Manhattan is now garnering renewed interest. Last summer Albert Schmid published The Manhattan Cocktail: A Modern Guide to the Whiskey Classic and Philip Greene, author of a fascinating Hemingway cocktail companion, To Have and Have Another, has just published his own take on the drink, The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail with Recipes.
The recent interest in the concoction is perhaps no surprise given the overall rebirth of American whiskey; from 2000 to 2015, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, sales of bourbon and Tennessee whiskey have climbed by nearly 32 percent. And that’s not to mention the sudden ubiquitousness of the Old Fashioned, which over the last few years has once again become one of the most popular whiskey drinks in America. (I’ll chalk that up to Don Draper’s insatiable thirst for the concoction.)
But while there is an accepted history for the Old Fashioned—essentially it’s the original cocktail recipe, calling for spirits, water, bitters and sugar—the Manhattan’s history is quite a bit murkier.
What we do know is that sometime in the late 1860s vermouth became available in the U.S. and made its way into cocktails (essentially Old Fashioneds) and changed the scene for good. “Its advent represents a watershed moment in cocktail history,” writes Greene in his new book.
“For the first time, an imported, fortified, aromatized wine known as vermouth modified the structure of the cocktail, adding balance, nuance, sophistication, and sweetness to the base spirit. It completed the revolution and launched a new epoch.”
But who first thought to combine vermouth with whiskey and bitters has been lost to history. For years, there was a persistent legend that drink was dreamed up for a party thrown by Winston Churchill’s mother at the Manhattan Club. Sadly, that theory has been thoroughly debunked.
Greene explores a few other stories about the elixir’s origins, including one that has a bartender named Black creating the drink in a bar on Broadway below Houston Street. Greene concludes after much sleuthing and no doubt countless hours of research “as with so many cocktail tales, the definitive answer remains elusive. It’s enough to drive a man to drink.”
While no one disputes the basic recipe for the Manhattan, the type of whiskey used in it will vary depending upon where you order it.
In a craft cocktail bar you’ll most likely get a Manhattan made with rye, since many believe that’s more authentic. The spirit also gives the Manhattan a pleasant spiciness.
While in a standard bar the drink will be made with the more popular and widely available bourbon (the bourbon version will generally give the drink a softer and more rounded taste).
The one problem with this practice is that, according to leading cocktails historian David Wondrich, author or Imbibe and Punch, historic bartending manuals don’t seem to consistently call for one type of whiskey over another.
Seemingly even the most essential and accepted detail of the drink leads to yet another Manhattan mystery. Until, further research turns up definitive proof, the only thing to do is fix a drink and ponder its shadowy origins.
2 oz Bourbon or rye
1 oz Sweet vermouth
2 dashes Bitters
Garnish: Brandy cherry
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir and strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a brandy cherry.
Contributed by Philip Greene
1.5 oz Wild Turkey
1.5 oz Carpano Antica Formula Sweet Vermouth
1 dash Amer Picon Bitters
1 dash Luxardo or Leopold Bros. Maraschino Liqueur
Add all the ingredients to a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Reprinted with permission from The Manhattan © 2016 by Philip Greene, Sterling Epicure, an imprint of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.