I’m always happy to return to my favorite food group: the Manhattan. This time, it’s the Black Manhattan.

The Black Manhattan sticks pretty close to the original Manhattan formula, substituting an amaro (Averna) for the usual sweet vermouth. The resulting flavor is quite unlike the standard Manhattan—less whiskey-driven, more bitter and earthy, and much more herbal. The name comes from the very dark coloration of the Averna.

The Black Manhattan seems a recent invention; it showed up around 2008 or so, as amaros started to become fashionable with bartenders. At that time, I knew very little about amaros, and did not particularly have a taste for them. The flavors were well outside my comfort range—too big, too bitter, too… weird.

Still, the drink seemed interesting enough to add to the notebook—“things to try some other day.”

My comfort zone expanded with time, of course, as did my familiarity with “big flavors,” so when I recently came across that old note, the Black Manhattan concept seemed quite attractive. I had fallen in with various amaros, but not Averna; the opportunity was at hand.

The Black Manhattan Cocktail, photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Black Manhattan Cocktail
The Black Manhattan

  • 2 oz bourbon or rye whiskey (Buffalo Trace, Bulleit 10)
  • 1 oz Averna
  • 1–2 dashes Angostura bitters

Stir all ingredients with ice until cold; strain into a well-chilled cocktail stem. Garnish with a brandied cherry.

The original recipe calls for bourbon. Rye-influenced bourbons like Buffalo Trace and Jim Beam Black are good matches for the Averna, as are straight rye whiskies like Rittenhouse. I’m all for the bourbon and its slightly sweeter profile.

Averna (detail), photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.Averna is a relatively sweet amaro, very dark reddish-brown, and sweeter than many sweet vermouths. It is also moderately bitter, with an herbal and orange peel intensity that is only just held in balance by the sweetness. Where vermouth has a grapey fruitiness, Averna has a licorice and citrus peel earthiness. It certainly is not to everyone’s liking; if you are new to amaros, I would start with a 4:1 (or even stronger) ratio of whiskey to Averna, rather than the canonical 2:1. In fact, I find that I prefer a mix closer to 3:1, though that’s more about controlling sweetness than bitterness.

There are plenty of amaros besides Averna, and the Black Manhattan encourages the idea of experimentation. For example, staying with the “black” motif, you could use Zucca (a rhubarb-based amaro) in place of the Averna. Zucca is a nearly opaque dark brown, but that’s where its similarity to Averna ends—it is much less sweet, and has a more bitter, earthy, almost leathery flavor profile.

Alternatively, you could use both sweet vermouth and your amaro of choice. The possibilities are endless.

And that’s why I love the Manhattan: a simple, robust drink, and a classic model for so many variations.