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The Black Manhattan Cocktail

Black Manhattan cocktail (detail), photo © 2013 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.

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.


16 Responses to “The Black Manhattan Cocktail”

  1. Kate's Bookshelf

    I don’t have the luxury of trying a bunch of different cocktails, it’s too expensive, but this sounds delightful. I’ll have to tuck it away as one to try one day.

    Reply
    • Doug Ford

      Hi, Katie,

      Yes, keep it in mind, it’s the kind of thing you might encounter some day on a bar menu, or in a friend’s kitchen. And therein lies the value of memory.

      Thanks for taking time to comment.

      Reply
      • Ian M

        I was able to find a 50ml bottle of Averna for $0.99 at a well stocked liquor store. They also had a 50ml bottle of Punt e Mes for $2.69. Snapped them both up to try in Manhattan variations. Great way to try something new without committing to a whole 750ml bottle!

        Reply
  2. swellkid recipes

    Excited to try this one. We recently became introduced to Averna on a trip to Sicily and loved it. Manhattan’s are a favorite at this time of year too, thanks for the recipe!

    Reply
  3. James Montalbano

    And when you get to Sicily, make sure you ask for Amaro Averna. Only asking for Averna will get you puzzled looks since Averna makes quite a few spirits there.

    Reply
  4. Lawrence

    I found this to be a deeply satisfying cocktail. Well balanced with a long finish.

    Reply
  5. Zachary

    Mr. Ford:

    Tried this the other night as I was looking for something to combat cabin fever — simply put, what a treat.

    I didn’t have a rye heavy bourbon on hand, but used a high proof bourbon and that made the 2:1 with the Averna work very nicely.

    Thanks for another great suggestion. Anything that plays on the Manhattan is worth a try!

    Zachary

    P.S. I haven’t seen you mention anything on the site re: cocktail cherries. Any chance you make your own? Or perhaps you use the Luxardo brand. Either way, it’d be great to hear what you use!

    Reply
    • Doug Ford

      I’m glad you enjoyed the Black Manhattan. I’ll keep in mind that it works well with a high-proof bourbon, thanks for that.

      Yes, I usually do prepare my own brandied cherries; I should probably do up a little article on that one of these days. (I also use the Luxardo cherries occasionally.)

      Reply
  6. Stephen

    The only medium amaro I have on my shelf is Ramazzotti and I used it in place of Averna for the Black Manhattan, and it was delicious. I have never had Averna so I am not sure how the Ramazzotti affected the taste, but I enjoyed it.

    Being a fan of the Fanciulli (also a Manhattan variant: Rye, sweet vermouth, and a spash of Fernet Branca in place of Angostura bitters), I have also experimented with the ‘Black Fanciulli’, which as you can imagine, is rye, amaro and fernet. While not as well balanced as the Black Manhattan, it is a big bitter drink that satisfied my want for a bit of that Fernet Branca menthol taste without going off the deep end while keeping the drink quite bitter.

    Reply
    • Doug Ford

      Ramazotti would make an interesting variant, I look forward to trying it.

      Your Black Fanciulli reminds me a bit of the Toronto, with the bitter side amped up. I look forward to trying that one, too. Thanks!

      Reply

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