Is There a Right Way to Make a Manhattan Cocktail?
Our columnist answers the three most frequent questions he gets about the Manhattan cocktail.
Whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters. This incredibly simple formula produces the Manhattan, one of the most complex and delicious cocktails of all time.
A drink so good it “changed the face of cocktails,” wrote bartending legend Gary Regan in the Joy of Mixology. “Quite simply, when properly constructed, it is the finest cocktail on the face of the Earth.”
While the ratio of its ingredients has certainly fluctuated over time and can vary from bartender to bartender, the drink is fairly straightforward to make. However, the devil is in the details and since writing The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail, I have been asked over and over again by friends, relatives and even barflies, the same three questions about the recipe.
In hopes of setting the record straight, here are my answers, which just might surprise you. Cheers!
Well, that’s a good question. If you look in vintage cocktail books, the earliest known Manhattan recipes are found in three books from 1884: George Winters’ How to Mix Drinks, O.H. Byron’s The Modern Bartenders’ Guide, and J.W. Gibson’s Scientific Bar-Keeping. Even if you’re able to track down copies of these works, the recipes, disappointingly, just call for “whisk(e)y.”
Not until the 1887 edition of Jerry Thomas’ pioneering Bar-Tender’s Guide do we find a specific spirit being called for and that whiskey is, indeed, rye. Thomas wasn’t alone in his selection—the spirit is called for in the 1898 edition of The Police Gazette Bartenders Guide.
But rye wasn’t universally used and a few years earlier the Boston Herald reported that “A Manhattan cocktail, by the way, is a very good drink just before dinner. It is the ordinary vermouth cocktail with a foundation of first-rate Bourbon whiskey. I do not advise the Boston Herald readers to drink anything, but, if they will drink, I think they will agree with me that a Manhattan cocktail is about as good as anything that can be manufactured.”
As an aside, this is perhaps the last time anyone in Boston wrote something nice about something coming out of New York, but I digress.
So, what should you use? I like rye for a spicier Manhattan and I like bourbon for a sweeter one. Which one should you have? I guess that depends upon the mood you’re in. Both are delicious in my book.
While most Manhattans are usually now garnished with a cherry, that wasn’t always the case. Going back to J.W. Gibson’s Scientific Bar-Keeping, the reader is instructed to “squeeze the juice of a lemon rind” over the drink prior to serving. And both Jerry Thomas and Harry Johnson’s Bartenders’ Manual also call for a lemon twist.
It’s not until George Kappeler’s 1895 Modern American Drinks do we find anyone suggesting a cherry garnish. But the fruit wasn’t universally adopted. In 1903, in the Bartenders’ Encyclopedia, author Tim Dalydirects his reader to garnish the Manhattan with either a cherry or olive.
On the topic of the cherry, cocktail folklore tells us that the first time it was used to garnish a Manhattan was at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago. The story was reported in a trade journal called Mixer and Server, published by the Hotel and Restaurant Employees International Alliance and the Bartenders International League of America. A 1911 issue explains that Colonel Neumeister, “the Chicago millionaire cheese manufacturer…was the originator of the ‘cherry in the cocktail.’”
It seems that Neumeister had cornered the market on cherries but, alas, no one was buying cherries and he was in jeopardy of taking a big loss. He “had over a thousand cases of the cherries that he could not dispose of for four dollars a case to bakers and confectioners, the only ones that had any use for them.” One day, however, Neumeister had an inspiration, “he put a cherry into a Manhattan cocktail which was being served to himself and his friend, Potter Palmer, the foremost hotel man in Chicago at the time, and the proprietor of the world-famous Palmer House. And right there was born the cherry in the cocktail idea that is used now in every civilized country in the world.”
The story goes on to report that “a week later cherries were worth fifteen dollars a case and following the lead of the Palmer House bar, were used in nearly every bar in Chicago, New York and other cities…and in thirty days the fad had extended to the Pacific Coast.”
While it’s a great story, I’m not sure if Neumeister really had anything to do with the popularization of the cherry garnish. But what I can tell you is don’t settle for the standard stemmed maraschino cherries you’ll find in most grocery stores, they’re artificially colored and a flavor abomination. I recommend Traverse City Whiskey’s excellent cocktail cherries, or those offered widely by Amareno Fabbri and Luxardo, they’re all superb.
Many professional and home bartenders use the standard formula of 2-1-2 for their Manhattans. (That is two-parts whiskey, one-part sweet vermouth and two dashes of bitters.) It’s easy to remember, since the telephone area code for Manhattan was traditionally 212. But is that the right ratio of whiskey to vermouth?
Well, that question is up to the drinker. Some bartenders, like New York legend Norman Bukofzer, who worked in the Ritz-Carlton overlooking Central Park, use a different ratio depending upon the strength and flavor of the whiskey selected. And that’s not to mention that some drinkers add more vermouth, if they want a less boozy tipple.
Now that we got that out of the way, what was the original ratio? Let’s go back to the bookshelf of dusty old bartender guides. In all three of the aforementioned 1884 books from Messrs. Byron, Gibson and Winters, the drink is made up of equal parts whiskey and vermouth. Further, the above-referenced books from Jerry Thomas and the Policeman’s Gazette actually call for two-parts vermouth to one-part whiskey, which is now referred to as a Reverse Manhattan.
But by the 1890s and into the 20th century, we see more and more bartenders settling into what we now consider the “conventional” ratio of two-parts whiskey to one-part vermouth, beginning with William “The Only William” Schmidt’s 1891 book The Flowing Bowl. It’s also seen in Louis Muckensturm’s Louis’ Mixed Drinks (1906), Jacques Straub’s Drinks (1914), Hugo Ensslin’s Recipes for Mixed Drinks (1916), and Patrick Gavin Duffy’s Official Mixers Manual (1934).
Then there are the “regional” twists that can be applied to the Manhattan, two of which are, oddly enough, found in the American Midwest. Order a Manhattan in, say, Northern Michigan, and you’ll likely get it served on the rocks, not up. Cross Lake Michigan over to Wisconsin, and you might be surprised to find your Manhattan made with brandy, not whiskey.
As they say, travel globally, drink locally, that’s fine with me.