Domestic Splendor

Classic Cocktail – Manhattan

The Manhattan is a thing of beauty and joy forever. It’s got depth and complexity and you can easily customize it to your particular tastes.  What’s more, if you master the nuances of the Manhattan, you’ve effectively mastered the building blocks of most classic cocktails. What follows in my personal Manhattan recipe, but also a bit of drink theory and some suggestions for customizing and tweaking the drink to your liking.

According to my cocktail heroes, The Darlingtons, in their amazing book The New Cocktail Hour (Note: I sincerely cannot recommend this book enough. It’s the best), the Manhattan likely got it’s start in the 1870’s (ah, the beginning of the Gilded Age!) at, well, the Manhattan Club.

You can order a Manhattan in a bar, of course,  if you’re not familiar with the drink, but I’d recommend making them at home, instead, so you know what you’re drinking and how its mixed – that’s the best way to learn how you really like a drink, and the best way to adjust the recipe to best suit yourself.

For a Manhattan, you need three ingredients:

  • A Whiskey
  • A Vermouth
  • Bitters

Rye whiskey is the traditional spirit for this drink, and it’s both my preference and my recommendation. However, I also know from personal, as well as anecdotal experience, that one can make a pretty darned good Manhattan with bourbon instead. I would encourage you to give Rye a chance, if you’re not already a fan.  It’s grassier, slightly rougher profile plays so well off the sweet vermouth that it would be a shame not to explore it.

What kind of rye? Well, I’m a big fan of Bulleit Rye (pretty easy to find and inexpensive at around $28/bottle), as well as Rittenhouse (a bit harder to find).  I also enjoy Redemption Rye, which is a similar price point to Bulleit, though I feel like it has a much grassier edge – that’s not a bad thing, just a different thing.  Finally, since I live in Bourbon Country, I’m frequently offered Woodford Reserve Rye – it’s very popular, though it’s my least favorite on the list. . However, I feel good about recommending any of those options to you – try them all and see what you think. I always try a spirit before I use it in a cocktail, and I heartily suggest tasting these ryes to see which ones appeal to you.

If you prefer bourbon, or just want variety, I suggest a higher proof, less sweet bourbon.  I like Old Forester 100 proof for a bourbon Manhattan, but there’s NO shortage of options, so sample to your heart’s content.

Vermouth is more straightforward. Use sweet vermouth in a Manhattan, but be sure to sample a few varieties and see what you like. I like Dolin Rouge (easy to find, very inexpensive) and Carpano Antica (harder to find, at least around here) Keep your vermouth in the fridge once opened, it oxidizes rapidly if stored at room temperature. And since you only need a little vermouth in the drink, a bottle can last for quite a while.

Most Manhattans are made with Angostura bitters, which are a true treasure, and a staple of any cocktail bar. Bitters are served in dashes, and a little goes a long way. If you want to experiment with other bitters (and there’s tons of options!), taste a few dashes in some seltzer water to get a feel for the flavor.

All right, so that’s the basic building blocks. From here, it’s all a matter of personal taste and preference, so take this information and prepare to run with it until you figure out YOUR perfect Manhattan (but not A Perfect Manhattan, that’s a different cocktail recipe, NOT an over-confident bartender, as I learned to my surprise once)

The somewhat classic Manhattan ratio is:

2 ounces of whiskey

1 ounce of sweet vermouth

2 dashes of bitters

If you like a sweeter drink or if you’re not super into very spirit-forward cocktails, this is a great ratio. The vermouth will sweeten and soften the whiskey, and the cocktail will be pleasantly syrupy and complex.

My Manhattan is more spirited:

3 ounces of rye whiskey

1 ounce of sweet vermouth

4-5 dashes of bitters

I evolved to this ratio over time, as I was finding the sweetness to be a bit cloying. Having said that, I have friends who like their Manhattans with 2 ounces of whiskey (bourbon, in their case) and 2 ounces of sweet vermouth. While it’s sweeter than I personally like, it’s still an enjoyable drink, and may be worth trying if you like the flavor of whiskey but prefer it to be significantly mellowed.

There’s your ratios. Here’s how to mix a Manhattan.

While I am a staunch advocate for eating and drinking things the way YOU like them, I am equally staunch in my belief that Manhattans should be stirred, not shaken. And not, that’s not just because I want to be contrary or because I hate James Bond. Stirring a cocktail chills the drink while ensuring it’s well combined, but it also strategically dilutes the cocktail just enough. I have the Darlingtons to thank for my strong allegiance to stirring, by the way. Before their book, I shook,and I liked it! But once I tried stirring, it was all over. The drink was just as cold but not as diluted and lacked cloudiness and ice shards.

So – measure your ingredients into a chilled cocktail shaker or pint glass that is partially full of ice. You want enough ice to really chill that whiskey down (remember, your vermouth is already cold!) but not so much you can’t stir.  I put my shaker in the freezer, with ice in it, and let it get nice and frosty. I find this helps to both chill the drink and slow the dilution rate.  Plus it’s dramatic when the frosty shaker takes on the warm whiskey – and who doesn’t want a little show with their drink?

I usually build in this order – bitters, rye, vermouth. Stir with long bar spoon or chopstick for about 20 seconds. That gives your spirit time to get cold and the ice time to melt just enough water into the drink to open it up and soften it.  You’ll figure out your own stirring preferences eventually, but 20 seconds is a great starting point.

Strain into a chilled glass. You can keep this as simple as throwing a cocktail glass in the freezer with a few cubes in it while you mix up the drink, or you can put the glass in freezer earlier in the day, whatever you prefer. I like to chill both glass and shaker for hours in advance, but that’s also partly laziness, because then I can just take the glass out of the dishwasher and put it right into the freezer.

Another polarizing point – do you serve a Manhattan on the rocks or up? Honestly, do what makes you happy. I like mine up because I want a frosty cocktail but not one that gets watery while I sip. But if you like yours with ice, go for it. If you’re going neat, then you can serve you drink up in a traditional stemmed cocktail glass or you can put it into a rocks glass – I like both options, so it just depends on my mood. If you’re going to use ice, then go for a rocks glass instead – trying to drink out of a cocktail glass with ice in it can be fraught with peril.

One more thing – we need to talk about how to garnish a Manhattan. The traditional accent is a maraschino or Luxardo cherry. If that’s your choice, you can either drop 1 or 2 or 3 or whatever into the glass or skewer them on a cocktail pick. If you want to be a little edgy, considering instead expressing an orange peel over the surface, and then garnishing with the peel. Try it both ways, and see what you prefer. They work nicely together, too, so don’t be afraid to do both!

Debunking Myths about Household Silver.

Do you long to have a table filled with shiny flatware, gleaming platters and candelabras? Concerns about upkeep, expense or use holding you back? Check out these 7 Myths about Household Silver.

Myth 1 – It’s expensive


Well, sure. There’s lots of expensive silver out there. Would I love to have the set of Tiffany sterling flatware ($4589) that I saw in an antique shop a few years ago? Yes, definitely. Do I? No. Or at least not yet.

Does that matter to me? No. Because there are tons of gorgeous, inexpensive (even cheap, if you know where to look) pieces of silver items out there just waiting for a home where someone will love them and use them.

Consider these trays – I’m pretty firmly of the camp that says anything looks better if you put it on a silver tray. But trays are expensive! Some of them are, but lots of them are not. I bought all of these trays at consignment stores, anitique shops and ebay. I don’t think I paid more than $30 for any of them, and many were quite a bit less than that. Are they in perfect shape? Not really, but for now, they serve me well, bring me joy and are in my budget.

[image of trays]

Are they fine pieces? Again, nope. There was a short time in the 20th century when silverplated everything was common and mass produced. Seemingly every newlywed couple had piles of silver serving trays, napkin rings, even canned cranberry servers. Guess where most of that inexpensively mass-produced stuff is now? Thrift stores, consignment shops, “Antique” malls and ebay or etsy. The great news is that it’s pretty cheap and a lot of it is in great shape because how often do people use a server for canned cranberry sauce? If you’re the kind of person who answers “All the damned time!” then you’re also probably the sort of person who invested in upgraded pieces and your things probably won’t end up in a Goodwill. But for lots of mid-Century Americans, the answer was “basically never”. Hence barely used and in pretty good shape. And while there are some wonderfully specialized items, there’s also plenty of basic, flexible pieces just waiting for a new home and new life on your table.


Myth 2 – Its hard to care for

Is caring for silver, whether plate or sterling, more work than stainless steel or ceramic? Somewhat,  sure. Is work that can be minimized with a little preparation and strategy. Absolutely. Is it worth taking a bit of extra time to clean and polish silver in order to enjoy it all the time. Well, I definitely think it is, and if you’re reading this, you probably are, too, or at least you could be.

Be realistic about how much time you really will give to caring for pieces, and then decide what that means for you. It might mean you enjoy using silver flatware once or twice a week, but you’re not interested in having to clean, polish and store serving dishes and platters. Or vice versa. It might mean you’re not willing to take extra time on a weeknight but that you ARE willing to put in some extra time for Sunday dinner.

Start small with something that appeals to you, and see how your feel about it after a few weeks. Are you finding the upkeep burdensome? That’s ok, time to reevaluate what you’re using and/or how often and find a new option. The goal of Big Splendor  isn’t to turn your life into an endless drudge of cleaning and polishing, it’s to find ways to fit some sparkle and fuss into your life in a way that enhances and enriches.

I have some silver plate serving dishes that I enjoy. But I don’t enjoy having to clean and polish them all the time, so I only break them out when I’m feeling a bit more festive. I have them, and I use them but I don’t force myself to get out every bit of finery I have every time I set the table, either. It’s ok to pick and choose.


Myth 3- I need a whole set of matching pieces


You may be the sort of person for whom that is true. If you’re going to be deeply bothered by an assortment of patterns or pieces, then you will probably derive more joy from waiting and assembling a set of “your” pattern. That’s totally fine.


If you are the sort of person who likes the idea of a bit of mixing and matching, then read on.  I think this is a line that every person has to decide for themselves. For me, I want all of the main flatware to match on the entire table. I am fine with some of the auxiliary pieces, like demi-tasse spoons or berry forks being their own pattern and style. I am also fine with my serving dishes and utensils being their own. However, I try to choose pieces and patterns that all work together, even if they’re not the same stamp. You might like the idea of a completely mix and match table top, in which case, go for it! I would only advise trying to ensure the basic dining utensils are at least comparably sized, since it can be a little weird if your knife, fork and spoon are significantly off-scale. Otherwise, go nuts. Your table will be unique and interesting, and you’ll have a lot more flexibility with both purchasing and using pieces.


Myth 4 – If I can’t afford sterling, it’s not worth bothering with plate


Well, really. This might be true, to a certain point or for certain people. But one could also make the same argument that if you can’t purchase sterling of a certain age or manufacturer, it’s not worth bothering. There’s certainly cheaply made silver plate out there that really might not be worth buying, but that’s because it’s poorly made, not because it’s plate.


This is another line you’ll have to draw for yourself, but my opinion is there’s nothing wrong with silver plate. There are many lovely, beautiful pieces available, of all ages and styles. The quality and workmanship of an individual piece is much more of an indicator of value or worth than whether it’s plate or sterling. Remember, Tiffany made silver plate items. Bottom line – if you like it, and it’s of a good enough quality to hold up, buy it, use it and love it. I wouldn’t suggest buying poorly made items or items in barely usable condition, whether they’re plate or sterling.


Keep in mind, too, that one may aspire to sterling (hello!) and still enjoy a set of silver plate flatware for “right now”. It’s generally pretty inexpensive to pick up 6 or 8 silver plate settings, and you can use those while you work on your sterling collection.


Myth 5 – I don’t have any where to store it

All right, you’ve got me here. At least to a point. I can’t advocate buying or acquiring things if you’ve truly not got a place to keep them. Splendor can’t flourish in clutter. And silver does have some basic requirements for storage and upkeep, so you can’t just shove it anywhere.


But keep in mind that you may be able to find a few clever storage solutions, and your only option for storing silver doesn’t have to be a speciality chest, cabinet or closet (though, those are all peachy – I long for a proper silver chest, myself)


For example, you can stash flatware, which nearly always comes with a storage case, under a dresser, bed or even under your couch if need be. Larger items can be put in an anti-tarnish bag or wrapped in anti-tarnish cloth and stored in a tote. Just make sure the tote is stored in a cool, dry place – if your basement is climate controlled, that’s an option. That is especially useful for larger items you don’t use all the time – platters, punch bowls, big serving pieces.


Don’t overlook simply “storing” a beautiful bowl, tray or platter as part of your home decor. Yes, you might need to polish it a bit more often than if it was stored in a tarnish resistant area, but on the other hand, it’s lovely to enjoy your silver every day.


Limited space or lack of safe storage places might mean you have to be selective about the pieces you choose to have but it doesn’t have to mean going without, either.


Myth 6 – My silver is an heirloom, I dont’ want to damage it


Fair enough. A lot of silver or china has been passed down through at least one or two generations, and it would be sad to lose a piece to accident or improper care. I myself have a large collection of silver plate flatware, china and glassware that came from various grandmothers and grandmothers-in-law and I would be very sad if anything happened to those pieces.

You can certainly choose to keep special items stored away. That most definitely  increases the liklihood they’ll survive another generation. But what you are keeping those treasures for if no one is ever allowed to enjoy them.


Consider if the piece in question was already used and loved by one generation – if so, then odds are good it’s already got a few dings or scratches on it – you may as well add your own story to it by using it on your table. At the very least, don’t let fear of damaging something hold you back from using it and making new memories. Learn how to properly use, clean and store the piece in question – do a bit of research on the maker, age and materials, and that will tell you a lot about what care the piece will need.  


. The piece of wedding silver Grandma used regularly and cared for is probably in excellent shape and well-made enough to handle being used. On the other hand, if a piece was used heavily or cared for improperly, then it might be in too fragile condition to use. But it’s been  my experience that a lot of the “good stuff” that gets handed down has been but lightly used, for fear of damaging it, or out of concern for it’s welfare or uncertainty for how to care for it. Silver can also take a bit more abuse than fine china or crystal, too, so it may be the perfect starting point for bringing some of your heirlooms to the table.


This is a totally subjective matter – only you can and should decide if a piece simply means too much to risk it on the dinner table. But I would encourage you to find ways to use your heirlooms – not only will you have lovely pieces for your table, you’ll be connecting with your ancestors, maybe even creating new memories among the younger generation of “great-grandma’s silver”.  


Myyth 7 –


People will think I’m ridiculous for using “fancy” stuff.


If this is indeed the case, consider finding new friends who won’t laugh at you or judge you for shaping your life to your own liking. Seriously. As the internet says “ain’t nobody got time for that”.


Ok, some less dramatic advice – if you’re concerned you’ll come off as fussy or pretentious for breaking out the silver or china, start small. Use it for dinner at home with yourself or your spouse/partner/roommate – someone who is cool and supportive and won’t make fun of you. Test it out. Have a few meals with a fancier table setting. See how it feels. Repeat until you feel totally comfortable, bored, almost.. The goal here is to get you to a point where this is all normal for you. If it’s normal for you, then you’ll feel more confident about stepping up your dining game with friends or family. If it’s normal for you, you won’t feel like you’re “showing off” by using fancy table stuff.


And I really do mean it. If your friends or family are lousy about you wanting to set a nice table for them, and you care enough about them to keep them around, then sit down with them and explain why this appeals to you and why it’s important to you. Odds are quite good that they’re intimidated by it and it’s often easier to mock something than confess it’s put you off your game. If they understand that you’re motivated by a love of splendor and a desire to make gathering with loved ones a little more special, they’ll be jerks for not going along nicely and appreciating the time and effort you’ve put in.


At the end of the day, it’s easy to find reasons not to do something. Using or having silver is no different. If you’re afraid of it or if you’re worried about it you’ll avoid it. There’s a workaround to nearly every issue here – it may take time or patience or a little bit of extra work, but if itt is something you care about and want to do, you can find a way!