Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Classic Rye Cocktails, #2: The Manhattan

It’s a favorite, a well-known classic. And it tastes even better in the early evening light of a Wednesday cocktail hour.

I know the Manhattan, you might say. Maybe your grandfather drank them. Or your father. (People rarely, it seems, associate women with Manhattan-drinking). You probably didn’t like them.

Why? Well, if you ever had a sip, it was probably boozy and bland. Furthermore, it’s the drink of rich people, fat cats, and robber barons, right? No wonder you didn’t like it. Chances are your immediate ancestors drank their Manhattans as a mixture of bourbon, sweet vermouth, and maraschino cherry juice. Bourbon, made by the barons of the Kentucky bluegrass, tends towards the anti-democratic.

It is true that the Manhattan was born (probably in New York State) in the late 1870s, just as the Gilded Age was gaining steam. In fact, the Manhattan could be found in bars across America by the late 1880s. David Wondrich, author of Imbibe, tells us that the first mention of the Manhattan in print came in the Olean (New York) Democrat in 1882. But smooth, insipid, buttery-finished bourbon didn’t find its way into the drink until the 1920s.

Served in many variations, the Manhattan grew out of the general trend in the late 1870s and early 1880s to mix vermouth (sweet or dry) with gin, brandy, or whiskey. By the late 1880s, rye was preferred in Manhattans. Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, bitters or even absinthe found their way into the drink. Not until Prohibition did bourbon become a fixture in this cocktail. By the 1940s, a Manhattan served anywhere was almost always made with bourbon.

Is it any wonder that our nation almost simultaneously began its long, slow, steady decline towards empire?

Rye imparts a spicier, livelier taste to this drink than bourbon, making this dusty old classic come alive. Here’s how to make one for yourself—the historically appropriate way—with rye:

3 oz. rye whiskey
1 oz sweet vermouth
two dashes of Angostura bitters (readily available in your local grocery or liquor store)

Mix these ingredients in a cocktail shaker. Add as much ice as you can fit into the shaker. Securing the top, shake vigorously until the outside of the shaker becomes too cold to touch. Count to five. Stop shaking. Pour the mixture into martini glasses immediately.

NOTE: Many prefer their Manhattans stirred rather than shaken. It’s a question of personal taste.

Garnish the drink with a preserved cherry.

NOTE: You can use a store-bought maraschino cherry (a faint, industrialized relic of the real thing) to garnish. But a real, homemade maraschino or brandied cherry tastes even better. It also connects us back to a time when bartenders had to make their own garnishes.

Experiment with this basic recipe. Try it with a dash of absinthe rather than bitters. Substitute .5 oz of sweet vermouth and .5 oz of dry vermouth rather than 1 oz of the former. If you like it sweeter, add a touch of simple syrup. Use a bit of lemon peel as a garnish instead of a cherry.

That’s the beauty of a rye-based cocktail. Even a classic can be personalized in a variety of permutations.


SwampApe said...

Absinthe? Lemon peel? Aren't you just admitting that the Saz is superior to the Manhattan?

A rye-drinker said...

Nothing but critique!

Like the Sazerac (derived from the first cocktails--sugar, water, liquor), the Manhattan is derived from the second basic cocktail--vermouth and liquor. Thus the many variations.

SwampApe said...

Well then, if the Manhattan derives from the second basic cocktail recipe shouldn't vermouth be involved some way? Perhaps wave the bottle around over the glass?

A rye-drinker said...

Yes. Of course. I never suggested that vermouth not be part of the drink.

A rye-drinker said...

By the way, the brandied cherries are really fantastic.

DrDaRyL said...

I was never going to admit this, but... I was in the Michael Mina Restaurant bar in the very swank St. Francis Hotel on Union Square in San Francisco with my wife. I ordered an Manhattan with rye (which they had) and it came with this most disgusting hunk of black fruit in it, reeking of cinnamon and cloves. It perfumed the whole drink, it made my lips go numb, it ruined the moment and the evening. Indeed, it was a spiced/brandied cherry, and it overwhelmed my drink like the perfume-sprayers assaulting you in a fancy department store. I have never sent back a drink, but I did this one... with a brief lesson to the bartender.

That probably wasn't a good idea. I paid for the drinks that evening with a credit card; the sullen waitress returned the receipt but in my hurry to flee to another bar I forgot my credit card... which I didn't discover until the next morning. I spent 8 panicked hours trying to track it down... and finally did. And it all started with a spiced cherry in my Manhattan. Take heed ladies and gentlemen.

A rye-drinker said...

Aha. drdaryl, the problem was that it was spiced. Such truck should never stand, let alone enter a cocktail glass. Rye is a hearty liquor, stout and able, something best enjoyed without additional spices. Brandied cherries--without spices--do not cause such trouble.