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Manhattan Cocktail, Cold and Dusky

…give us the manhattan, cold and dusky in a frosted glass, the luxurious swirl of rye and vermouth, a dash of Angostura bitters for tone, the one and only cocktail that really demands a cherry. Mark Kingwell, Classic Cocktails, a Modern Shake

There you have the template for one of the oldest of the classic cocktails. Various stories place the invention of the Manhattan in the 1870s or early 1880s, predating even the venerable martini. As with many of the great cocktails, there seems to be some mystery about its whereabouts before its first appearance in print; the Manhattan is first recorded in the 1887 edition of Jerry Thomas’s Bon Vivant’s Companion.

Manhattan Cocktail, photo © 2010 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.

The Manhattan

The Manhattan that Kingwell describes, the one in general circulation these days, is based on the Savoy Cocktail Book’s Manhattan Cocktail (No. 2).* Modern mixology makes it a blend of two to four parts whiskey, one part vermouth, and a healthy spicing of bitters.

Manhattans can rightfully be made with either rye or bourbon. Rye provides a drier, spicier, less caramelly drink compared to bourbon. Historians tell us that rye is likely the “authentic” Manhattan whiskey, but the rye whiskey industry was moribund for decades, as the spirit disappeared from back bars and store shelves. Some analysts blame vodka, some the politics and economics of consolidating bourbon makers or liquor distributors. Whatever the reason, when I started making Manhattans, I think I had never drunk rye in my life, and bourbon was my only option. Tasty and readily available, Maker’s Mark was my Manhattan whiskey of choice for years, and continues to be my second choice for bourbon Manhattans, since most bars in my area still don’t stock even a single rye. (First bourbon choice? The dry, spicy, high-rye Bulleit.)

(Another funny thing about the bars in the Minneapolis area—unless you specifically order your Manhattan “up,” you’re likely to get one served on the rocks.)

So what about other whiskies? For starters, if you’re a Scotch lover there’s the Rob Roy, which is made on the Manhattan plan, but with your Scotch of choice.

As for blended whiskies, never, ever, let some bartender try to tell you that Manhattans should be made with something like Canadian Club. I don’t care what the Savoy Cocktail Book says, that’s just wrong. The idea that CC can replace a good rye whiskey is just a canard left over from Prohibition. There’s no drink in that drink. The Manhattan is no place for light or blended whiskies.

Even farther along the scale, there is currently a fashion for what’s known as “white dog,” whiskey bottled without the flavoring and coloring effects of oak barrel aging. This spirit naturally suggests the “white Manhattan” parlor trick that combines the clear whiskey, dry (white) vermouth, and orange bitters. Matt Hamlin wrote up an example of this recently (“Ghost Manhattan), and reports that he was favorably impressed. He also says he could have confused it with a martini. I haven’t tried it yet (no more room on the whiskey shelf), so I’m trying to keep an open mind. Apparently it’s a real and palatable cocktail, but when something is called a Manhattan, I want it to taste like a Manhattan, redolent of oaky whiskey, red vermouth (no “dry” Manhattans for me, thank you), and Angostura. The Ghost Manhattan sounds like an interesting and tasty drink, and I’ll look forward to trying one, but I’m just sayin’…

So, back to good American rye or bourbon, providing us with one of the oldest and greatest of the classic cocktails:

The Manhattan Cocktail

  • 2 oz rye or bourbon whiskey (Rittenhouse 100 rye, Bulleit or Maker’s Mark bourbon)
  • ¾ oz sweet vermouth (M&R)
  • 4 dashes Angostura bitters

The Manhattan is never shaken—stir with ice until very cold, then strain into a well-chilled cocktail glass. Optionally, garnish with brandied cherry.

Spirits: The Cold Glass house ryes are Rittenhouse 100 and the more regularly available Wild Turkey 101. As noted above, I usually go with Bulleit or Maker’s for bourbon Manhattans. Part of the attraction of the Bulleit is the rye-ness of it, but it is also relatively higher proof than most, making for “a more incisive and balanced drink,” as David Wondrich puts it in Imbibe!

Update: it’s interesting how the passage of time can change the marketplace drastically. When I wrote this, Rittenhouse was rationed, only available early in the year, and only in a few shops; Wild Turkey 101 rye was available everywhere in my market. Now, to my delight, Rittenhouse is readily available again; Wild Turkey 101 has disappeared.

Vermouth: I have been very happy with M&R sweet vermouth; the sweeter Dolin is a pleasant alternative if you apply it with a light hand, as is Dubonnet. (And there’s Bénédictine, but then you would have a Derby.)

Bitters: I generally stick with Angostura, or occasionally Fee Brothers Whiskey-Barrel Aged. A drop of orange bitters can be very pleasant in a bourbon-based drink; orange peel makes a very nice garnish for that formulation—and gives you the “Uptown Manhattan” of Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz’s Art of the Bar.

Garnish: The maraschino cherry is the traditional garnish, but I’ve never met anyone who had access to real ones—just the ubiquitous neon red ones. Instead, you can  follow the minimalist route and go garnish-free, or garnish with lemon or orange peel. I prefer one brandied cherry; these are incredibly easy to make, and there are lots of recipes on the web.

Stir: Many sources, including some that should know better, suggest shaking Manhattans to chill. That’s very naughty, I don’t know what they’re thinking on that. Shaking generates an unattractive, cloudy drink with a long-lasting layer of soapy-looking bubbles across the top.

* Yes, the Savoy has a “Manhattan Cocktail (No. 1),” of course, essentially a glass of vermouth with some whiskey in it. I’d love to know the story of how the drink evolved from (No. 1) to (No. 2).

Extra reading:

Gary Regan’s survey of Manhattans from the bartender’s point of view

Robert Hess provides a video, with some background on bitters.

21 Responses to “Manhattan Cocktail, Cold and Dusky”

  1. erik_ellestad

    Don’t knock Manhattan Cocktail (No. 1) until you’ve tried it, especially with a cask strength Bourbon or Rye. It is actually pretty tasty. It is, by the way, more or less verbatim, the Jerry Thomas version of the Manhattan. Interesting what 50 years or so can do to a drink.

    • Doug

      Erik—I did see your writeup on (No. 1), and I came close to adding a link to your endorsement. The post was getting long, so I cut out the side trip to a (No. 1) discussion.

      Well, here it is, the Savoy Manhattan Cocktail (No. 1):

      In fact, your evaluation of the tricked-out version makes me want to give it a try one of these days. Alas! that I didn’t have the ingredients available to match your preparation. I’ll just have to overcome the “Looks Too Weird” aspect of the recipe and give it a try with the ingredients at hand. (It certainly wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been happily fooled by “That Can’t Possibly Work” formulas.) So you really are going to push me into buying cask-strength whiskies, aren’t you? Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. Jean

    Add a few drops to a dash of Calvados for some pizzas. I call that a Big Apple.

  3. Eric

    Love love love your blog. I’ve been working through the posts and making each drink. I’ve learned so much and thank you for it. Beautiful work. Thanks again.

    Eric in napa

    • Doug Ford

      Thank you, Eric, what a delightful compliment. I’m glad you enjoy Cold Glass. Happy cocktailing!

  4. Philip

    Hi Doug. 4 1/2 years on from your original writing and it’s still drawing comment! That is a classic in its own right!
    Anyway, to my point. I have been playing around lately with the classic Manhattan (a favourite) after I finally managed to locate some more ryes here in Hong Kong. Thought I’d like to share with you what I find to be a particularly rich and spicy formulation. This is based on High West Double Rye Whiskey. As I’m not American, I tend not to work in ounces, so forgive me if I give this in the part measurements I am used to. For reasons which may become obvious, I tend to call this the Lush Manhattan (it’s too easy to drink, too!)

    3 parts High West Double Rye Whiskey
    1 part Carpano Antica vermouth
    1/2 part Giffard Vanille de Madagasque

    As classically, stir over ice until very cold and strain into a well-chilled glass. I garnish with a cocktail cherry, which I make very simply myself from canned/preserved pitted black cherries from which I pour off the accompanying sugar syrup and steep in Luxardo Maraschino for a week or so.

    Enjoy your column greatly
    Best wishes

    Philip in Hong Kong

    • Doug Ford

      I’m delighted to hear from you, Philip. I’m happy you can get the High West Double Rye—I enjoy that one, too, and it’s fun to know it’s available in Hong Kong.

      Your Manhattan sounds lush, indeed. I’m not familiar with the Giffard Vanille, but I can imagine the general combination with the High West and the Carpano. It would be easy drinking, indeed.

      Thanks for the good words, and for sharing your recipe.

  5. Patrick

    I couldn’t be happier with your description of the Manhattan; it’s very nearly exactly how I make it at home (mine goes with 2 dashes angostura). Manhattans are far and away my cocktail of choice (preferably with Bulleit Rye, but Maker’s is fine for when I’m out!), but, ironically, it’s a different drink every time I order it unless I specify, VERY specifically, what I want. Considering it’s barely even 3 ingredients and 150 years old, it’s a bit pathetic that this is an issue.

    If I just order “a Manhattan” at a bar that isn’t specifically a speakeasy, it will be shaken, and 60% of the time it will come on the rocks. I mean, honestly, what’s the bloody point of even having a name for the thing if it’s so open to interpretation? And how do you become a bartender without knowing you never, EVER stir clear ingredients? I’m so sick of Manhattan slushies that I’ve taken to saying “I’d like a Manhattan, please, with [insert whiskey here], stirred, and served up.” Overly verbose, if you ask me, considering the Manhattan is a specific thing… but I digress..

    • Doug Ford

      Hi, Patrick, yes, I agree that the Manhattan can be a risky order in a bar. Around here, the default seems to be shaken, and on the rocks. What th’…? I’ve found that I have to specify “up” and “stirred.” Which means, of course, that I really only order Manhattans in places where I’m a regular, and busy bartenders are willing to cut me a little slack for slowing them down. Or, as you say, in craft bars.

      My problem with shaking is that awful foam. Why would anyone want to serve such a thing, when a cold, limpid Manhattan is such a beautiful thing? Oh, well…

      Thanks for commenting, it’s gratifying to know you enjoyed the post.


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