Manhattan Cocktail Redux

by on September 20, 2010

Recently I’ve been musing about the Manhattan Cocktail and with Woodford Reserve and Esquire Magazine launching the “Craft the Ultimate Manhattan” contest, it has given me an opportunity to put my thoughts to pixels. Why? Because the recent trend in Manhattans has been to make it the absolutely most flavourful drink it can be. Flavour is great, but balance is import too.

The problem started when bartenders got lazy and stopped using bitters in their Manhattans. Once the concept of being a professional bartender hit its stride, bitters were an absolute requirement. Obviously, quality ingredients were a welcomed addition that brought back the Manhattans dignity. Where things go off the track is when bartenders swing too far the other way on the taste scale. It seems some of the Manhattans I’ve had are over-compensating for years of neglect. Here are some of my musings.

First, the Manhattan cocktail has been an ever evolving cocktail, but still stays relatively true to its origins (depending on your historical sources). The basic recipe is simply whisky, sweet vermouth, bitters and a cherry or lemon zest. Maraschino can be an option also. From this starting point there are hundreds of possible variations depending on your interpretation of each of these ingredients. So let us dissect.

Whisky
Canadian? Rye? Bourbon? The choice of which whisky seems to be a personal preference, however, that preference can be easily influenced by the beliefs of others. The current trend is to move away from the Canadian whisky and replace it with a stronger whisky like bourbon or rye. Obviously this makes for a more assertive Manhattan.

Vermouth
Technically we could include French / dry vermouth here as well, since the Perfect Manhattan is equal parts red and white. If we do then we have dozens of different vermouths to choose from.

Twenty years ago, the vermouth used in a Manhattan was whatever was on the back-bar. It was usually Martini or Cinzano, sometimes Stock. Today, bartenders are sourcing unique, limited export vermouths for their Manhattans or using far stronger vermouths like Punt e Mes or Carpano Antica. There is nothing wrong with this, but some of these vermouths have significantly more flavour than something like Martini, plus they also have a strong bitter component. Again, not necessarily bad on it’s own, but in combination with other factors this can really push the limit.

Bitters
 Typically this is the one ingredient that gets missed at uncaring establishments, but for those that care this may be the key ingredient. I don’t necessarily agree in certain cases, like if you are using an assertive vermouth like Carpano Antica, which can over power a few dashes of some aromatic bitters.

A recent trend has been to move away from aromatic bitters and start using things like Unicum or Fernet Branca. I actually tried this back in 2007 and found that Unicum worked well, but only using 6 drops and inverting the Manhattan recipe and adding Maraschino. You can read about it here: Manhattan Cocktail

The point is that many amaro type bitters are very bitter, so use them with reasonable proportions. I’m personally not a huge fan of Fernet Branca, so getting my Manhattan with ½ oz of Fernet in it wouldn’t make me happy.

The Cherry
Confession: I actually don’t mind those fluorescent red sudo-cherries who’ve had their souls replaced with chemicals and artificial flavouring. If Jamie Boudreau or Eben Freeman had created them, under the guise of Molecular Mixology, we’d all be cheering. And really, the process for making maraschino cherries is indeed very cool and on par with any molecular food techniques. But, the maraschino cherry is old and doesn’t offer any “wow factor” to modern bartenders, so it gets a bad rap.

 Anyway, for the Manhattan garnish most people stick with the maraschino cherry, but others have gone to making their own infused cherries. Other have taken the lemon zest route. There are dozens of options here, but the garnish isn’t going to make any epic changes in the flavour profile.

Maraschino
This is an optional component that isn’t found too often in the Manhattan. Traditionally, Maraschino liqueur was used in a lot of drinks, so it made sense for some bartenders to add it to the Manhattan. However, other bartenders realized they could just add a teaspoon of maraschino cherry syrup into the drink and people still liked it, but it saved the bar money. Skip the syrup and stick with the liqueur.

For my personal tastes I like my Manhattan to be a little more relaxed and not so upity. I generally drink Manhattans as an aperitif, so I want some bitterness, but not necessarily over-powering. I also like some sweetness to balance out the bitter. Other preferences: if you use a potent vermouth, use a lighter whisky, if you use a strong whisky, ease up on the bitterness.

Other than my modified Manhattan from 2007, here’s another version that works for me:

Darcy’s Basic Manhattan
2 oz Woodford Reserve Bourbon
1 oz Vya Sweet Vermouth
3 dashes Abbott's Bitters

This works out to a nicely balanced, but pretty standard Manhattan. If you used something like Punt e Mes, I’d probably go with a Canadian Whisky, like Wiser’s Small Batch. If you used a slug of an Amaro, I’d ask for a lighter vermouth like Martini. And Maraschino is always an acceptable addition in my Manhattans, but just a ¼ oz or less please.

For me it’s about keeping the balance. Combining the most potent ingredients available and calling it the best doesn't work. That's like someone drinking Wray & Nephew Overproof straight and then goes around criticizing all 80 proof rums as weak and flaccid. Balance, not potency, is the key. I want my Manhattan to make me smile when it hits my lips, I’m not worried about its pedigree. 

Here's some additional articles on How to Make Vermouth and How to Make a Martini.

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