The Manhattan is still widely regarded as one of the greatest cocktails ever created. Personally, a well made Manhattan is a cocktail I truly enjoy. It’s perfectly in balance, simple and as a guy I can drink this cocktail anywhere and not feel out of place. It’s also as strong as a properly made martini, but like the martini it started out differently. The martini is based on a cocktail called the Martinez, which for the sake of brevity, was 2 parts vermouth, 1 part gin, bitters and Maraschino. Notice it wasn’t all gin and a wisp of vermouth. The Manhattan started out the same way and that’s the cocktail I’ll be taking a look at.
The history of the Manhattan has a fairly convincing story behind it, only because it is so often repeated. Basically the drink was made for Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchhill’s mother at the Manhattan Club in the 1870’s and it was thoroughly enjoyed and became popular. The story has been picked apart and it seems it may not be true. The reality is that the Manhattan was probably one of the five borough cocktails (Brooklyn, Bronx, Manhattan, Queen’s and the Staten Island cocktail) made to represent the parts of New York city.
The recipe for the original Manhattan cocktail is fairly simple, but when you read the recipe from Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide you’ll need to do a little thinking. Some of the measurements are a little dated, but with a little research you’ll find that a wine glass is
4oz* 2oz and a pony is 1oz. I could be wrong though.
In other classic cocktail books the recipe indicates either equal parts whisky and vermouth or two parts vermouth and one part whisky. For me I decided to try the 2:1 variation. The recipe also calls for Boker’s bitters which are long defunct. You can find recipes to make your own, or rumor has it the Bitter Truth is creating a version that is similar. The other rumor is the Unicum bitters are similar to Boker’s because Boker’s was a digestif bitter, meaning it was created to be served alone and not as an aromatic bitter. Basically it was sweetened. I decided to use Unicum bitters just to see what would happen.
Classic Manhattan Cocktail
(Use small bar-glass.)
Take 2 dashes Maraschino.
1 pony of rye whiskey.
1 wine-glass of vermouth.
3 dashes of Boker's bitters.
2 small lumps of ice.
1½ oz Sweet (Red) Vermouth
¾ oz Rye Whisky
6 Drops Unicum Bitters
1 tsp Maraschino
Combine all ingredients with ice, stir and strain into a claret glass. Garnish with ¼ lemon.
When I took my first sip I was surprised at how well the Unicum bitters and Luxardo Maraschino were plainly obvious. The bitterness and sweetness were very well balanced with the whisky playing a support role cutting back the sweetness.
If you like sweet vermouth then you’ll probably like this classic Manhattan. It is smooth, with a very mild kick. If you are interested in trying classic cocktails, but find the high alcohol content intimidating, give this a try, it is a great cocktail to ease into the high octane world of classic libations. From this point you can appreciate the modern Manhattan.
If I was behind the bar and someone asked for something different, this is what I’d offer them. It’s a great drink before a meal and would probably work just as well afterwards. It seems the barkeeps of the 1800’s had a really good grasp of what tasted good, unlike a lot of bartenders today who think that more alcohol equals better.
* Thanks to Erik Ellestand for providing a reference to a quote from the all-knowing David Wondrich about the classic bar measures.