As with many cocktails, the origin story of the Manhattan cocktail tells many tales. The most logical says that it sprang from New York City’s Manhattan Club in the early 1880s. The most satisfying, yet unlikely, is that Winston Churchill’s mother introduced it at a political celebration.
What isn’t disputed is that the Manhattan was the first cocktail to put vermouth together with a spirit in a glass—and that said spirit was straight rye whiskey. The addition would engender a slew of aromatized classics—the Martini, the Rob Roy, the Metropole—and you can be forgiven if you make your Manhattan with some other sort of whiskey. The fortunes of rye—once America’s favorite whiskey—would be lashed by Prohibition, and drinkers tended to make their Manhattans with Canadian whiskey, often called rye, although as a blend it doesn’t qualify as a straight whiskey.
One of the happiest results of the recent cocktail culture revival has been the rediscovery of original ingredients and the concomitant redevelopment of the rye category. Having fallen to a handful of examples, rye is now one of the most popular spirits introduced by craft distillers. Moreover, new vermouths are arriving regularly. Lest we forget, another sometimes misplaced ingredient, bitters, is enjoying a comeback with a breadth of selections.
Don’t approach the Manhattan like a Martini by trying to make it very dry. You may tinker with the ratios, but the idea is to feature both main ingredients. The rye, with its spicy nature, and vermouth, with its riot of botanicals, should show through and create a tug-of-war between manic energy and sophistication that describes the New York City borough for which it is named.
A fine start to homing in on your favorite Manhattan is to start with two ounces of the profound Master’s Keep rye from Wild Turkey, a long-time champion of rye. Add one ounce of the sultry Carpano Antica Formula vermouth and two dashes orange bitters. Shake or stir with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry or lemon twist. Repeat if necessary.