Separated at Birth: The Martini & The Manhattan
The world’s two most famous cocktails are more similar than you realize and share an incredible amount of DNA.
When I first met the late and very much-lamented Gary “Gaz” Regan, it was back in 2001 or 2002, long before he took to cheekily stirring Negronis with his finger as a way of getting cocktail geeks to lighten up. In fact, it was well before he was drinking Negronis at all, or at least not more than the normal, necessary amount of them. Back then, when I was with him he was usually drinking Manhattans. Now, to us today that might seem like a perfectly reasonable thing to drink, if perhaps a tad unexciting. At the dawn of the modern Cocktail Renaissance, however, this simple mix of whiskey, vermouth and bitters was a statement.
If you’re going to save a dying tree, first you have to prune it back; saw off all the dead and dying branches and allow it to focus its remaining vigor in its original trunk.
Likewise, you weren’t going to be able to get a good Vieux Carré, Aviation or Last Word from a bar culture that was struggling with a simple Manhattan. As Gaz knew well, that was where you had to start. “I think that the Manhattan is the best cocktail on earth,” he wrote in his classic 2003 bartender’s bible, The Joy of Mixology. “It’s so simple, but it’s so darned complicated. You should take the construction of this drink as a challenge.”
The Manhattan really is the main trunk of the modern Cocktail tree. Although it’s not the first Cocktail; the root system, as it were, it’s the one that ushered in the modern Cocktail as we know it: the smooth and complex meld of flavors delivered in a few glacial sips from a little stemmed glass.
Until the Manhattan was introduced, a Cocktail consisted simply of a shot of booze—mostly Dutch-style gin (I’ll get to that), brandy or whiskey—softened with a barspoon or so of syrup, maybe another spoon of Curaçao or maraschino liqueur, and pointed up with a couple of dashes of bitters. The only popular variations, the Crusta (with a barspoon of lemon juice) and the Japanese Cocktail (with a hefty splash of orgeat syrup) kept pretty close to the original formula. Sometimes there was a dash of absinthe added, just for stimulus.
If you’re a Sazerac drinker, you know the high-octane appeal of this type of old-school Cocktail. There’s nothing fussy about these things and they will take you where you need to go without detour or rose-smelling along the way. That can be a fine thing. But it can also mean, should you miscalculate your dosage even slightly, that your dinner companion might have to grab your hair and pull your face out of the vichyssoise.
Back in the years after the Civil War, American drinkers were well aware of this defect, if it is one (I can never decide), and were already starting to explore ways of dodging the Cocktail’s swift swat without getting rid of the icy, bracing intensity of flavor that came with it.
One promising avenue came about due to the unification of Italy. Small amounts of vermouth had been coming into the country since the 1830s, some from the South of France and some from the area around Turin in the neighboring Kingdom of Savoy. In the 1860s, Savoy found itself at the heart of the newly-coalescing Italy. One thing that meant was that Savoyard vermouth producers such as Martini & Sola and Fratelli Cora had access to new sources of capital and were able to greatly increase their exports. It helped that vermouth was fashionable in Paris, and back then what was fashionable in Paris was of great interest to many Americans, particularly in New York.
We can see one immediate result of this in June of 1868, when a group of New York journalists gave a banquet at Delmonico’s, the city’s most famous restaurant, for the members of the Sorosis Club, a literary association for women. They served drinks.
Sherry and bitters was one of them. The other was a thing called the “Vermouth Cocktail.” If that’s at all like the one in the Steward and Barkeeper’s Manual that the New York-based Haney company published the next year, all it was vermouth, stirred up with ice and served in a little glass and with a twist of lemon. A simple drink, to be sure, and a bit insipid, but nevertheless one with much of the texture and depth of a Whiskey Cocktail, with less than half the kick.
Over the next decade or so, this Vermouth Cocktail would somehow grow into the Manhattan. Unfortunately, we don’t know precisely when the first Manhattan was mixed or by whom. We know a seed was planted, but we can’t see the young shoot until it already sent forth its roots and poked its way through the dirt and the leaves and whatnot into the shores of light.
We see that shoot beginning to shift the leaves in 1869, when the bartender at Jack Lowe’s Knoxville, Tennessee, saloon—A.K.A. “the place to go to get a Cocktail before breakfast”—was mixing those pre-breakfast nips with “Pure Vino Vermouth Bitters.” (The early Italian vermouths were labeled “vino vermouth”—“wormwood wine” and were often found on the bitters shelf, ostensibly due to that wormwood content, though in fact it was negligible.)
Now, we don’t know if Fitzgerald, the bartender, made those Cocktails from straight vermouth or used dashes of it in place of the normal Angostura or Boker’s bitters, alongside whiskey or gin or brandy. The ad seems to imply the latter.
Further evidence, of a sort, that people were combining vermouth and whiskey can be found in the 1876 report from a Eureka, California, newspaper of a seedy stranger who walked into a local bar and ordered a “nice whisky cocktail with a little wine in it.” Was that wine our “vino vermouth”? We can be pretty sure it wasn’t something like a French Bordeaux or a German Riesling, since such table wines almost never appear in the American Cocktails of the time and bars rarely stocked them. It might be a dash of Champagne, though, which was what sporty, saloon-going Americans generally meant at the time by the word “wine.” Yet, that, too, would be precocious, since it wasn’t until the late 1880s that it became fashionable to dash Champagne into a Cocktail.
(As for that stranger: he took a sip of his cocktail and then casually remarked to the bartender that, while his doctor thought he might have smallpox, he didn’t—thus causing said bartender and everyone else in the joint to dash for the nearest exit and allowing him to drink up at leisure and saunter out without leaving his fifteen cents—twenty-five if it was indeed Champagne in the drink—on the bar.)
It’s at least possible that Fitzgerald’s Cocktail and the Cocktail the stranger ordered in Eureka were made by replacing part of the whiskey in a regular Cocktail with vermouth. It’s also possible that the resulting drink was also already known as a “Manhattan Cocktail”: in 1873, the New York Sun had noted that the Manhattan Club in that city had “invented” a Cocktail; the club would be cited often in later years as the Manhattan’s home.
But one of the problems with the history of things that people don’t generally consider historic is that nobody went out of their way to write all this stuff down. There were a lot of Cocktails being tried out in the 1870s and early 1880s—as the Kansas City Times noted in 1881, when making a Cocktail “the artist puts in benedictine, liqueur d’amour or some secret ingredient and creates a cocktail par excellence.” The vast majority of these either never even got their own names, or if they did they never saw them recorded. For a Cocktail to make its name known, it has to grow and spread and stand out among the rest. That requires exceptionally fertile soil.
The first sign that the combination of vermouth and spirits had found that soil and grown into the Manhattan Cocktail we know today comes on August, 31, 1882, when the anonymous author of a “Gotham Gossip” column that was syndicated in a handful of small-town newspapers in the East and Midwest notes that “It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters came into vogue. It went under various names—Manhattan cocktail, Turf Club cocktail, and Jockey Club cocktail. Bartenders at first were sorely puzzled what was wanted when it was demanded. But now they are fully cognizant of its various aliases and no difficulty is encountered.”
After this, the Manhattan grew in the full light of day. Indeed, by 1883 the august Palmer House, the fanciest hotel in Chicago, was carrying it on its drinks list, and as the Manhattan (those other names soon fell away, but see below). There was still a little ambiguity about exactly what it is, though—some bartenders thought that it was made not with whiskey, but with gin.
That’s not as weird as it seems: at the time, Americans far preferred the malty, whiskey-like Dutch style of gin to the light, sharply-botanical English one, although that was changing and the newer drinks tended to go with the latter. In fact, before long the English-gin Manhattan had usurped that Turf Club moniker, and then secured a name entirely its own: the Martini (or the Martinez, or the Martine; its name wobbled around for a while too).
In either case, whiskey or gin, the Manhattan was just what was needed: the ounce or so vermouth in the drink, at about 16 to 18 percent alcohol, was significantly weaker than the whiskey or gin it replaced, which clocked in at between 45 and 50 percent alcohol, making for a smoother, rather less lethal drink. Yet due to the richness of the vermouth it kept the same silky, seductive texture. At the same time, the resulting Cocktail had significantly more punch than the plain Vermouth Cocktail, which was a bit of a disappointment on that score to all but the most tentative tipplers.
It didn’t take long for the Manhattan to get around: by 1884 Charlie Paul, of the Royal Aquarium bar in London, was making them, albeit with Scotch (we’ll get back to that); the year later, they were all the rage in Vienna. In the meanwhile, they had conquered Boston (“a Manhattan cocktail is about as good as anything that can be manufactured,” wrote one journalist, pressing the drink on his fellow citizens), Louisville, Chicago, New Orleans and most of the rest of the many cities of America.
Along the way, though, the Manhattan spawned an extraordinary number of successful variations. As the Martini proved, its formula was extraordinarily flexible: not only could you vary the proportions of whiskey and vermouth—most liked equal parts, but some preferred more whiskey and others more vermouth—but you could substitute in almost any spirit and have something palatable.
By 1884, there was a Metropolitan Cocktail on the books, with the dry French vermouth and brandy instead of whiskey. While no Martini, the drink—apparently named after New York’s popular Hotel Metropolitan—enjoyed a certain vogue that extended into the early twentieth century when the unrelated, but very sporty Hotel Metropole in Times Square basically stole the formula for its own eponymous cocktail.
Another mid-1880s variation was the Bamboo Cocktail, which further backed off of the alcohol by using sherry instead of whiskey. Attributed to Louis Eppinger, a diminutive German who kept an equally-diminutive, but wildly popular, saloon in San Francisco, the Bamboo gained wide popularity and became a standard drink.
The Brooklyn Cocktail wasn’t so lucky, at least not the original one. That one dates to 1883 and was a specialty of the tony Brooklyn Club, which was in Brooklyn. It was made with equal parts Italian vermouth and 100-proof Jamaican rum, with a dash of Angostura. This is in fact a delicious concoction, but it doesn’t seem to have escaped the confines of the Brooklyn Club bar, which was still quietly pouring them in 1945. The Brooklyn Cocktail that made it into the books is from the first decade of the 1900s and is a whiskey-and-vermouth Manhattan with a dash of maraschino and different bitters.
In 1892, William “The Only William” Schmidt, the downtown New York bartender who was by far the most famous of his profession, published his book, The Flowing Bowl. In it, he listed no less than 16 variants on the basic spirits + vermouth + bitters formula, including three drinks that brought into the mix a new spirit, Russian kümmel (basically, an off-dry aquavit), and two that cut the vermouth with Fernet-Branca, thus making him the precursor of all hipster mixology. There was, however, one popular imported spirit he missed, and one domestic one.
The imported one was blended Scotch Whisky, then enjoying its first turn in the limelight in the U.S. In 1895 or thereabouts, a Hoboken bartender, one Henry Orphal, came up with the same idea Charlie Paul had, but was smart enough to give the combination its own name: the Rob Roy. People still drink that one. Hell, I still drink that one, and pretty often.
We don’t know who subbed in applejack, the domestic spirit, but that was done by 1893, and probably at the bar of the Manhattan Club, which is not coincidentally the leading candidate for developing the Manhattan itself. The Star Cocktail is still one of the best applejack drinks.
But let’s get back to Gaz Regan. When I started drinking with him, I had about given up on the Manhattan unless I made it myself. Mine were not perfect (I had yet to learn how to properly stir a drink), but bartenders were really struggling with it. While the Martini had come out of the Melon Ball-and-Mudslide years more or less unscathed, the Manhattan wasn’t doing so well. As Gaz put it in The Joy of Mixology, one of the biggest problems was that “some untrained bartenders out there still think that the drink should be made with just a dash or two of vermouth.” (That “some” was him being kind.)
Beginning in the 1950s, the general run of bartenders had learned that when a customer ordered a “Dry Martini” they didn’t mean a mix of one to three parts London dry gin to one-part dry French vermouth, as the drink had been made since the 1890s, but rather a drink that was almost entirely gin or vodka, with the merest whisper of vermouth.
With gin and especially vodka, such shenanigans can result in a palatable, if bracing, drink, provided the bartender knows how to stir the thing into Antarctic frigidity. But over time this practice had taught bartender and customer alike that vermouth was something akin to toxic waste, and if there was any way you could avoid using it you should. That thinking bled over into the other vermouth drink, the Manhattan.
Now, gin can stand being mixed with just a hint of vermouth; it’s light enough as a spirit that even a splash will make itself felt; will transform that glug of gin into an actual Cocktail. But whiskey is a much richer spirit, where the flavor goes all the way down, so to speak. A little splash of vermouth won’t move the needle from “whiskey” to “Cocktail,” not even the way a simple barspoon of syrup and a couple of dashes of bitters will. Vermouth just isn’t concentrated enough, or sweet enough, for that. It takes a real pour of the stuff to do the job—three quarters of an ounce, or an ounce. Anything less and you’re just making muddy whiskey, which was what I usually got when I ordered a Manhattan. (That’s why many of those bartenders would throw in a spoonful of yuck from the cherry jar: they knew the drink needed something, but with adding more vermouth off-limits, their options were limited.)
I don’t know how Gaz did it, but he had a way of nudging those bartenders into using enough vermouth to turn the mix into a Cocktail the way it had been intended a century ago and more: “a dazzling cocktail that will bring a sparkle to the eyes and put a slick steep back into a pair of dancing feet,” as he put it back in 1995. Eventually, he nudged enough bartenders that the Manhattan stepped back out of the Martini’s shadow, bringing with it some of its many delicious offshoots in the process. Thanks, Gaz.