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.