Every Time a Bell Rings an Angel Gets a Manhattan
A look at the quintessential Frank Capra holiday movie through a liquor lens.
Since it’s December, I recently found myself watching (yet again) Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s honestly hard to switch the channel when I hear Jimmie Stewart’s signature creaky voice, so I sat there, sipping a Manhattan and watching the trials and tribulations of George Bailey. As I enjoyed my cocktail—a classic marriage of rye whiskey, vermouth, and bitters—I got to thinking about the movie.
At the heart of Capra’s masterpiece is good ol’ George Bailey’s struggle to realize that he has been a hero all his life to the people of his hometown, Bedford Falls. But when you’ve watched the movie as many times as I have, you realize that while George definitely comes through, there is a good case to be made that the story has an equal if not bigger hero.
Clarence the Angel? Zuzu? Uncle Billy? No! I’m talking about George’s wife, Mary Bailey. While sipping my Manhattan and enjoying the movie, it hit me: Mary is, arguably, the real hero here.
Think about it. When the stock market crashed and banks closed, whose idea was it to give up their honeymoon money to keep the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan open so Old Man Potter couldn’t get his hooks into it? Mary! On their wedding night, who transformed that broken down old house into a South Pacific retreat, complete with travel posters, a game hen roasting on a spit, and music from an old Victrola? Mary! Who, on moving-in day, stands at George’s side with wine, bread, and salt for every new home in Bailey Park? Mary! When George is suicidal and in dire need of money, who rounds up not only a basket of moolah from the locals, but also a big cash commitment from her old beau, Sam Wainright? You guessed it: Mary. And let’s not forget, it was Mary who asked Mr. Martini to serve the wine, a heroic hostess if there ever was one!
To put it in cocktail terms—I’m a cocktail kind of guy, after all—Mary is like the sweet vermouth in a Manhattan. (Follow me here for a minute.) While whiskey is clearly the star of the drink, it was the addition of the vermouth that transformed what was basically an Old Fashioned into something sublime and entirely different. The concoction launched an entirely new category of aromatic drinks, including the Martini/Martinez, the Rob Roy, the Brooklyn, the Vieux Carre, the Astoria, the Scofflaw, the Deshler, the Boothby, the Fourth Regiment and hundreds of others.
With the advent of the Manhattan and the Martini, the New York Sun took note of vermouth’s dramatic ascent in 1890:
“Within a few years the demand for the liquor has greatly increased, partly because the cocktail habit has steadily grown and vermouth enters into nearly all cocktails. There was a time when the whiskey cocktail stood almost alone in the esteem of the thirsty American public, and it was made without vermouth. Now vermouth enters not only into the whiskey cocktail but into the gin cocktail, the Martini, and the Manhattan. Furthermore, the habit has grown of serving before a heavy dinner a glass of vermouth and bitters.”
It’s as if Old Man Whiskey said to vermouth, “Kid, I’ll make you a star,” and together they took off like a rocket. Vermouth sales soared through the 1880s, 1890s, and all the way to Prohibition, riding that mixological rocket to unheard of heights. Sadly, thanks to Prohibition, World War II, and changing consumer tastes, that rocket came back to earth; classic cocktails and vermouth hit hard times in the second half of the 20th century.
But today, with the resurrected popularity of classic cocktails, vermouth is once again on the ascent, proving itself an unheralded necessity to both professional and home bartenders. In addition to old standbys, there are now also a range of boutique and craft vermouths.
So if you find yourself watching It’s A Wonderful Life this holiday season, do as I do. Fix yourself a Manhattan, remember Mary Bailey, and raise your glass to the unsung heroes in your own life. No doubt there are many.