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The Manhattan Project

Jack Bettridge
Posted: May 1, 2000

(continued from page 1)

Einstein had his theory of relativity: E=MC2. So have devotees of what may be the most explosive of cocktails -- the Manhattan: three parts rye to one part vermouth.

Except that with cocktails -- unlike quantum physics -- things can never be that simple. As many ways to make a Manhattan exist as whiskeys to make it with and people to drink it.

Start with the premise that it is a rye-based drink and right away you encounter contention. Rye is the traditional foundation, dating back to the 1870s when Lady Jenny Churchill, Winston's mom, is supposed to have invented the drink at New York's Manhattan Club (Of course, you can tell other stories about the Manhattan's origin. Even one that it came from Virginia. Posh!!! But bear with us here.) At the time, straight rye was a much more common bar commodity than it is now. Order rye at you local watering hole today and you are more likely to get Canadian whisky or some other blended spirit. (For more on rye click here.) Since rye is a closer cousin to Bourbon (varying only in mashbill, but not ingredients or process) than it is to blended whiskey, many devotees have gravitated to Bourbon in their Manhattans. Others, the true students of the drink, seek out straight rye -- the mark of a purist. Still others slavishly follow the dictates of mixologists.

Once you reject the idea of putting a blend in your Manhattan, you can choose between Bourbon and rye (assuming it's available) on the basis of personal taste. Do you want Bourbon's inherent sweetness or the spicy allure of rye? Each brand of whiskey has its own idiosyncrasies, as well. Your decision may also have something to do with the time of year. A friend starts mixing his Manhattans with Bourbon as soon as they run the Kentucky Derby (a nice nod to tradition) and changes to rye when summer ends.

Once you've arrived at the base, you need to think about proportions. In the Martini -- clearly a close relative of the Manhattan with its mix of hard spirit and vermouth -- this subject sets off clamorous debates, but not for the same reason as with the Manhattan. The Martini has been influenced over the years by an inherent machoism. How can we make this more like drinking pure alcohol, mixers seem to be saying with their recipes that call for whispering the word vermouth at the cocktail shaker or letting light pass through the vermouth bottle and into the Martini. This is clearly a cry for help on the part of someone who is insecure in his masculinity. Manhattan drinkers know that if they wanted to order pure whiskey they could do so much more seemly ways: neat, straight up or, simply, as a shot.

Manhattanites, if you will, accept vermouth as part of the drink's majesty, and argue about ratio only as a matter of taste, not their hurry to get blotto. Vermouth adds the elegance that the drink's place name would suggest. So why not have a standard ratio of say three or four to one? Gary Regan, who with his wife, Mardee, wrote The Bourbon Companion, runs the Web site www.ardentspirits.com and ends each working day with a Manhattan, would argue that ratio depends on the whiskey used. If you start with a sweet Bourbon, for instance, you are simply gilding the gold to add large quantities of vermouth. A spicier Bourbon or rye, however, cries out for more vermouth.

Whatever proportions you choose you still have to deal with the Perfect problem: whether to use sweet or dry vermouth. The same principles described above should guide you in your decision. There are, of course, three, not two, choices. Use sweet vermouth and you have a Sweet Manhattan (the classic). Use dry vermouth and naturally you have a Dry Manhattan. But add your aperitif quotient as equal parts dry and sweet vermouth and you have the Perfect Manhattan.

Another way in which the Manhattan differs with the Martini is its allowance of -- insistence on, even -- other flavors besides the two basics of which we have spoken and a garnish. Bitters -- angostura or orange -- are as much a part of the recipe as the whiskey and vermouth. (Martinis have been made with added ingredients, but they cease to be Martinis and become frou-frou drinks.)

Furthermore, there are those who add a dash of the maraschino cherry juice from the garnish as a little sweetener. Max Allen, the late and venerable bartender emeritus at Louisville's Seelbach Hotel, made his Manhattans with grenadine and dared customers to find a better Manhattan and he would buy it for them. He died without opening his wallet on that particular bet. Dale DeGroff, bartender for New York's Greatest Bar on Earth, makes something he calls the Greater Manhattan with a dash of Harvey's Bristol Cream.

The classic garnish is the maraschino cherry, but even that is open to debate. Much as the Martini garnish has diverged from its classic olive into onions, lemon twists, chile peppers, sprigs of spice, etc., so are other garnishes welcomed in the Manhattan. The difference is that Manhattan drinkers do not insist on a new name for their cocktail simply because the cherry has been replaced with a lemon or orange peel. It is still a Manhattan, unlike the Martini, which becomes a Gibson simply because of the introduction of a pearl onion.

But why would one eschew the cherry to begin with? Well, you might be on strict orders from your dermatologist to avoid sweets or you might be trying out the Atkin's Diet. The direction we suggest is toward tart fruit, but we don't deign to create rules for Manhattan garnishes.

We will countenance no discussion, however, as regards the manner of mixing. The Manhattan must be shook, never stirred. Be it silver or steel or pewter, shaped like a bullet, a bird or an airplane, the cocktail shaker should be metal and capable of creating a clatter -- for this is a concoction that must announce its coming. Use generous portions of ice and shake the stuffing out of the drink. Wrap the shaker in a towel if you can't stand the cold, but shake for at least 20 seconds (we've heard of zealots going as long as two minutes, but that may be excessive). The point is to create crystals of cocktails that hang in the drink like frigid gems and suggest just how precious and ephemeral is the little oasis of time known as the cocktail hour. Serve in the classic long-stemmed, funnel-shaped container that we forbid you to call a Martini glass.

That said, there are those who would order their Manhattans on the rocks in an Old-Fashioned glass. Nothing is so much wrong with this, as certainly the drink is palatable and will tend to stay chilled longer, but can't we all agree that this philistine approach might be better termed a New Rochelle or a Yonkers, anything but a Manhattan. It just is not magical.

It was with this idea of magic in mind that one recent Saturday afternoon a group of Cigar Aficionado editors embarked on what we refer to as our Manhattan Project, mixing cocktails with a spectrum of different whiskeys and trying to remain capable of recording tasting notes. There were also cigars, and, yes, mistakes were made.

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