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Of all the whiskey-based classic cocktails, the Manhattan is easily the best. Its simple but stylish three-part harmony has endured through trend and political travesty for more than 150 years, its birth likely tied to and not long after the arrival of vermouth in America by the 1840s. It was so renowned in stylish drinking parlors of the 19th century that even after the Volstead Act of 1919 made tippling taboo on American shores, it simply hopped a freighter and continued to be the expat belle of the ball abroad.
Still, it has known strife. After whiskey stocks took a hit during and after Prohibition, the Manhattan made do riding shotgun to the Martini’s clean-and-clear driving force. And before bartenders began reeducating themselves, more than a few were crassly made with over-the-hill vermouth and neon red cherries of questionable toxicity.
The Manhattan cocktail—now this is what the Manhattan Project should've been about.
But the Manhattan never really went away, even as so many other once-relished whiskey cocktails were all but lost to the shadows of drinking culture. And while the rediscovery of those drinks make for fun menu additions, the Manhattan, big, ol’ grown-up that it is, remains content to offer its whiskey-sweet vermouth-bitters combo as a sustaining staple of any proper bar. What else do you want to know? Below are a few other notions to sip on.
1. The Trifecta Carries the Torch
Whiskey (2 parts), sweet vermouth (1 part) and bitters (dash)—this is the everlasting crux of the Manhattan. In its early days, it did indeed at times have a few extra ingredients. In the 1892 book “The Flowing Bowl” by Only William (aka, William Schmidt), the ingredients for a Manhattan cocktail were listed as such: 2 dashes of gum [syrup], 2 dashes of bitters, 1 dash of absinthe; 2/3 drink whiskey and 1/3 drink wine vermouth, plus the suggestion of adding a little maraschino liqueur. Yowza. So while tinkering may have made for (and, well, still makes for) some fun gilding of the lily, the core harmonic ingredients—whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters—remain the consistent winning combo that has outlasted all other fashions of fancy.
2. A Little Sweet, a Little Dry = Perfect
A subcategory of the Manhattan is the Perfect Manhattan—that is, 2 parts whiskey, 1 part equally divided sweet and dry vermouth, and bitters. “The thing about a Perfect is you have to be careful—you want it to be balanced. You want to try to get a good combo of flavor between sweet and dry,” says Susie Hoyt, the beverage director of The Silver Dollar in Louisville, K.Y. “You still want the cocktail to be pleasing to the palate to the extent that you go back for another sip.” If your Perfect leaves you feeling parched, a little more sweet vermouth or a few drops of demerara simple will do the trick, says Hoyt.
You don't need to be in the five boroughs to enjoy this sophisticated tipple.
3. Rye or Bourbon? There Are No Wrong Answers
It’s likely that rye was the first spirit used to make a Manhattan as it was the first grain used to make whiskey in the U.S. But traceable reports seem to offer up both. “The first time you see a recipe for the Manhattan that specified a particular type of whiskey was in Jerry Thomas’ “The Bar-tenders Guide” from 1887, and it called for rye,” says Phil Greene, the author of “The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail.” “Meanwhile, in the ‘Boston Herald’ of December 9, 1883, it describes the Manhattan as ‘a very good drink just before dinner. It is the ordinary vermouth cocktail with the foundation of first-rate bourbon whiskey.’ So take your pick,” says Greene. The thing to remember is rye is going to give you more savory spice, and bourbon more sweet, mellow vanilla notes, so let your palate be your guide.
4. Never Ever, Ever Shake It
The rule of thumb is this: Cocktails with juices, milk, cream or eggs get shaken, because these ingredients need the aeration, dilution and binding that’s created during that vigorous act. But booze-forward cocktails like the Manhattan? Stir it, please! Stirring ensures dilution and chill, yes, but also maintains that weighty, silky texture from the spirit and fortified wine base, as well as its gorgeous amber-hued clarity in your glass.
5. Match Your Proof to Your Vermouth
While you can’t go wrong sticking to the two-to-one whiskey-to-vermouth recipe, adjusting your vermouth to the spirit’s alcohol content can make your Manhattan sing. “If you’re making a Manhattan with an 80-proof Four Roses Yellow Label bourbon, for example, and using something rich and viscous, like Carpano or Cocchi, back down off the vermouth,” says Hoyt. “You don’t want to drown out the flavor by doing a full one-ounce pour. I might do a half or a shy half ounce, and adjust up from there.” For higher-ABV whiskeys, she says, go for the full ounce.
6. Angostura Is the Standard, but It Isn’t the Whole Story
The sudden explosion of bitters has added interesting dimension to many a Manhattan, but it’s spicy Angostura that has remained the gold standard. That wasn’t always so. According to Greene, it’s historically up for debate. In 1884, the Manhattan made its debut in three different cocktail books with three different suggestions for bitters. “In George Winters’ ‘How to Mix Drinks,’ it calls for two or three dashes of Peruvian bitters. Joseph W. Gibson’s ‘Scientific Bar-Keeping’ just said ‘bitters.’ O.H. Byron’s ‘The Modern Bartenders’ Guide’ did in fact call for Angostura,” says Greene. A few years later, Jerry Thomas would suggest yet another: Boker’s. But in surviving Prohibition alongside the Manhattan, Angostura indeed wins the mantle of the you-can’t-go-wrong standard.