There have been only a handful of seismic shifts in the evolution of the cocktail. But the arrival of vermouth on the American scene in the late 1800s is surely one of them. The cocktail canon would be significantly poorer without this oft-maligned miracle ingredient. The Martini, the Manhattan, the Rob Roy, the Negroni, the Star, the Gibson, the Bronx. They all need vermouth. The list goes on and on. The fine qualities that vermouth brings to these cocktails are difficult to overstate. But then again, vermouth didn’t do badly by the arrangement, either. The relationship was symbiotic, and there was ladder-climbing on both sides. To paraphrase the well-known quote about what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did for one another, strong, rough-hewn spirit lent light-bodied vermouth sex, while vermouth gave spirit class.
Martini drinkers should not read this next part—their pride is wounded so easily. Historically speaking, their usual is nothing more than the Manhattan’s little brother. That unknown American genius who first decided to combine a spirit with sweet vermouth did so with whiskey— because, don’t we always try things out first with whiskey? The Martini came shortly afterwards.
Like the Martini, the Manhattan went through some growing pains before it gelled into the bourbon/rye-sweet vermouth-bitters concoction we all know and love. Once there, it showed itself to be a solid, secure and sophisticated drink, a cocktail built like a brick house. And it has ever after attracted a very solid, secure and sophisticated kind of drinker. Manhattan drinkers know who they are and what they like. (J. Pierpont Morgan, the enduring and terrifying model for all titans of industry to follow, ordered one at the end of every trading day.) They are not intimidated by the puffed-out chests of the Martini set. They’re so confident in their choice, in fact, that they fret not at all ordering a drink that has an actual cherry in it—a bright red garnish that is as odd as an olive when it comes down to it, and brushes the border of just plain silliness.
More than most of the classic cocktails, the Manhattan’s history has been fairly steady as she goes. It didn’t wake up after Prohibition having shed its bitters, or having left its vermouth in its other coat, or suddenly having signed for an unordered shipment of extra fruit. It was still just a Manhattan. And any bar could make you a decent one.
The mixology brigade of the 21st century reintroduced the drink to the younger generation in fighting form, using good whiskey—often rye, newly rescued from the dustbins of history—and fresh vermouth and actual cherries. Thus spruced up, the drink returned the favor with unprecedented generosity, offering up its hearty formula as inspiration for countless new variations: the Greenpoint (made with the addition of Yellow Chartreuse), the Red Hook (Maraschino liqueur), the Little Italy (Cynar), the Carroll Gardens (Nardini amaro), the Cobble Hill (Amaro Montenegro and some cucumber), the Bensonhurst (dry vermouth, maraschino and Cynar). The list went on. (The “neighborhood drinks,” they were called.) And unlike the countless progeny of the Martini—all those unctuous, sugary “‘tini’s” of the 1980s and ‘90s—these were not embarrassments. The many new-millennium children of the Manhattan were credits to their Papa.
One more thing about the Manhattan. The cocktail’s lengthy winning streak can possibly be credited to one secret weapon of which almost no other cocktail can boast: you don’t need great whiskey to make a great Manhattan. Celebrated literary imbiber Lucius Beebe once wrote, “It has often been remarked that the most exciting Manhattan is one compounded with ordinary quality bar whiskey rather than the rarest overproof article. It is perhaps the only mixed drink where this generality obtains.”
It’s true, and a great and wonderful mystery. The high-falutin’ bartenders who reach for high-octane, rare or expensive whiskey to make the “world’s greatest” Manhattan are misguided. The best Manhattans I’ve had have been made with ordinary and easy-to-acquire bourbon or rye.
This makes total sense, given the drink’s name, which is taken from one of the world’s great cradles of democracy and equal opportunity.
Reprinted with permission from 3-Ingredient Cocktails: An Opinionated Guide to the Most Enduring Drinks in the Cocktail Canon by Robert Simonson, copyright© 2017. Published Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Photography credit: Colin Price© 2017