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The Manhattan

The Manhattan. It conjures up images of 1920s art-deco, skyscrapers, flappers, and the healthier clam chowder. The oldest version of the cocktail that I know of dates to 1888, which contained dashes of absinthe and gomme syrup, in addition to the more commonly known ingredients of whiskey and vermouth. Gomme syrup eventually becomes simple syrup, without gum arabic which thickened the older syrup into something about as thick as honey and also made for silkier cocktails. Absinthe went through it’s own trials and tribulations, being banned in most Western countries for nearly the entire 20th Century. But what really changed the Manhattan cocktail was Prohibition.

Prohibition changed every cocktail. What constitutes a cocktail is always up for debate, but when drawing rooms and Gentlemen’s clubs were no longer legally able to serve alcohol, people snuck into the speakeasy to get their fill of palatable booze. The cocktail recipes that called for six or seven ingredients became unwieldy, impractical, and too time-consuming to make. The two-ingredient (plus ice) cocktail was born. Somewhere before 1930, the Manhattan split into two versions, sweet and dry.

A bottle of Old Overholt rye whiskey and a classic cocktail glass with a Perfect Manhattan

It was brilliant in its own way, since it the split revolved around two versions of the “same” product, vermouth. Vermouth is a spiced, fortified wine from Italy. Sweet vermouth is usually red, and dry vermouth is white, but, interestingly, both start as white wines. In any case, a bartender only had to remember one recipe for two cocktails. The Manhattan, sweet, was one part sweet vermouth to four parts whiskey, and the Manhattan, dry, was one part dry vermouth to the same four parts whiskey. If the speakeasy had bitters, a dash or two would do, and the sweet got a cherry, while the dry maybe got a lemon peel, if it was a fancy joint.

But there’s more to the history of the Manhattan than just the loss of sweetness and herbal flavors. We’re swimming in bourbon these days, so it’s difficult to imagine, but at one point, bourbon wasn’t the whiskey of choice in America. Whiskey can be made from any grain or mix of grains. Bourbon is mainly a corn mash that’s then aged in charred oak barrels, but the key to producing a decent bourbon isn’t the corn, but letting it age and reusing part of the mash in the next batch—that’s the sour in the sour mash. There wasn’t a lot of time to age the whiskey during Prohibition, and there was no guarantee that one batch would survive long enough to sour the next mash. Instead, bootleggers and moonshiners used a classic American recipe for a young but complex whiskey made from rye.

George Washington made rye whiskey on his plantation in Mount Vernon, but rye is really a Northeastern tradition, so while its inclusion in the Prohibition-era Manhattan may have been for purely practical reasons, it had a nice poeticism about it as well. Rye whiskey is fruity like bourbon (fruity is very subjective terminology here—do not consume expecting it to taste like a Jolly Rancher), but bourbon is a bit sweeter. It is usually aged for at least two years, but with Prohibition being what it was, I’m certain that most consumers were getting pretty young rye. Still, an immature rye was better than a immature bourbon.

So the neo-classic, Prohibition-era Manhattan was just rye whiskey and vermouth. It’s a strong drink for my modern palate, sweet or dry. Closer to my tastes is the Manhattan, perfect, which uses both sweet and dry vermouth, and restores a dash of bitters.

The Manhattan, Perfect

  • ½ oz. dry vermouth
  • ½ oz. sweet vermouth
  • 2 oz. straight rye whiskey
  • dash of bitters
  • handful of ice cubes in a blending cup
Combine all ingredients in a blending cup and stir with bar spoon, letting some of the ice melt. Strain into cocktail glass with Maraschino cherry and lemon peel.

I know, everyone is too cool for the cherry these days, but I like it. It makes the drink sweeter when I am finishing it, which helps compensate for the drink getting warmer and releasing the stronger esters. The Manhattan has evolved beyond merely adding two types of vermouth, too, and many locals will serve it with other fortified wines like port or madeira. As with all things, though, I start with the traditions and work my way out, so I sampled a few different versions of older (but not 1880s-old) recipes and the recipe above pleased me more than either the sweet or dry versions, alone.

I used Old Overholt straight rye whiskey, Martini & Rossi dry vermouth, Gambarelli & Davitto sweet vermouth, and traditional Angostura bitters. Old Overholt is pretty easy to find and is a fine rye, and the vermouths were chosen for cost over any other consideration. A storage note, sweet vermouth can be kept in the liquor cabinet, but dry vermouth will oxidize and is best kept in a refrigerator once opened. Vermouth makes a really excellent deglazing wine (take it off the heat—it’s fortified!), too, for any mixologists who may cook in between cocktails.

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  1. Toni says

    The good ol’ trusty Manhattan. Always there for you when you need it. Except when mom drinks them at family gatherings. Then its just becomes embarrassing.



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