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!

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