If you like Manhattans, but sometimes find them a bit sweet, perhaps the Lafayette Cocktail is your next best friend.

The Lafayette is an embellishment of the “Perfect Manhattan” (sometimes called “Medium Manhattan”), which is a Manhattan with half the sweet Italian vermouth replaced with dry French vermouth. The Lafayette goes a step further, replacing the half-portion of Italian vermouth with Dubonnet Rouge. The result is a drink that is slightly drier than the Manhattan, and with a bit of an edge from the Dubonnet’s hint of quinine.

I have yet to discover the origin of the Lafayette. It appears to be a post-Prohibition cocktail. The earliest recipe I’ve seen so far is from 1948, in David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. It pleases me to think that the cocktail is a tribute to the Marquis de Lafayette, the French general and hero of the American Revolution. That idea is supported by the Franco-American ingredient list—rye whiskey and French vermouths.

The Lafayette Cocktail, photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Lafayette Cocktail

(On the other hand, there is a reference to a drink called the “Lafayette” in the Café Royal Cocktail Book, published in London in 1937, but without a recipe. A British origin makes it seem less likely that the Marquis was the inspiration, but I’m sticking with the tribute story until someone convinces me otherwise.)

The Lafayette Cocktail

  • 3 oz Rye Whiskey (Rittenhouse 100, Knob Creek)
  • ½ oz French Vermouth (Dolin Blanc, Noilly Prat)
  • ½ oz Dubonnet Rouge
  • 1 dash Angostura bitters

Stir all ingredients with ice until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail stem, or over ice in a rocks glass. Optionally garnish with orange.

I prefer the 100-proof Rittenhouse in this drink, but these proportions work just fine with 80-proof ryes.

Dry vermouth is infamous for not combining well with whiskies; the dry is for gin. As Embury puts it:

“…there is always likely to be something wrong, something not quite satisfactory, about a blend either of dry vermouth with whiskey or of sweet vermouth and gin.”

The Lafayette Cocktail, photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.

Exception: the Dolin Blanc vermouth retains a bit of sweetness that helps it combine with the whiskey; I recommend it if you can get it. It combines perfectly and transparently, and encourages a sense of smooth lushness in the Lafayette.

(My original recipe listing used the word “dry” for the vermouth, as opposed to Embury’s “French.” Matty points out in the comments below that the Dolin Blanc is not, properly speaking, a “dry” vermouth, and questions if this cocktail made with the Blanc is really a proper Lafayette. It’s an interesting question. My position is that we don’t really know what vermouth was used originally—just “French”—so it probably isn’t out of line to consider Dolin Blanc a legitimate element of the Lafayette. Cocktail naming is always a touchy subject—especially when ingredients straddle the line between rules and guidelines. I welcome your input.)

The Angostura is the only non-French, non-American ingredient in the cocktail, but it is the classic Manhattan bitters, and it works well in this combination. The Lafayette Cocktail (detail), photo copyright © 2012 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.Chris Weigert, at Urbane, Not Cosmopolitan, has suggested adding a dash of Bittercube Jamaican Bitters #2, which is a pleasant variation if you can get them. They add a complex floral, nutty note to the main whiskey profile. Even better (if you have a Bittercube supplier) is their Bolivar bitters—there’s a note of cinnamon, and a bit more depth than you get from the Jamaican, sort of like adding a full portion of sweet vermouth without the extra sweetness. Give them both a try.

(If you find that Dubonnet suits your taste, there are a couple other cocktails you might want to try; I recommend the Deshler and Arnaud’s Special Cocktail.)