Is This All-American Classic the World’s Best Cocktail?
Cocktails are an American invention, and one of the best-known is the Manhattan.
No one can say with certainty where or when the Manhattan was first concocted, although cocktail historian David Wondrich says ”its roots stretch back to the old Manhattan Club, in 1874.”
But there’s no controversy regarding the popularity of the drink. Cocktail aficionados consider it one of the finest ever conceived, and it’s on almost everyone’s list of best cocktails.
We’ll get into this whole “best” thing later. Right now, we have a drink to build!
Recipe: Manhattan Cocktail
The original Manhattan was made with rye whiskey, and that is my liquor of choice for this drink. Today some people prefer bourbon, a sweeter whiskey then rye. Bourbon is good, in my opinion — but not as good as rye in this drink. More about whiskey choices in the Notes.
Bitters (preferably the Angostura brand) were an important ingredient in the original cocktail, although today some bartenders omit them (assuming their clients prefer the drink without). But this is faulty thinking — the same kind that leads many bartenders to omit dry vermouth in the Dry Martini. The Manhattan Cocktail loses much of its soul without bitters. So if you don’t have bitters on hand, make yourself a different drink.
This recipe serves one. The proper ratio of rye to sweet vermouth is 2:1, so you can easily scale up this recipe to serve to a crowd.
- 2 ounces rye whiskey (I prefer Wild Turkey 101 proof or Rittenhouse 100 proof Bottled in Bond; see Notes)
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth (the red stuff; Martini and Rossi is widely available and good quality)
- 1 - 2 dashes Angostura bitters (I like bitters so I always use 2 dashes, sometimes more)
- maraschino cherry for garnish (preferably one with a stem; optional)
- Fill mixing container half full with ice.
- Add ingredients.
- Using a long-handled spoon (a bar spoon is ideal) stir vigorously for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Strain into a cocktail glass (preferably one that’s been chilled).
- Garnish, if you wish, with a maraschino cherry (I often omit a garnish)
Note that the recipe directs you to stir the drink. There are three reasons for this:
- It makes the drink cold.
- Stirring with ice somewhat dilutes the drink, which adds volume and an important dimension to the final flavor.
- When you shake, you introduce tiny air bubbles into the drink, which (until they dissipate) gives the drink a somewhat “cloudy” appearance. Many Manhattan aficionados prefer the crystal clear look that stirring imparts. You can shake if you want — I often do — but your drink will be cloudy. (By the way, you should always shake a drink containing any citrus juice, because citrus is difficult to incorporate into a drink merely by stirring, and because the inclusion of citrus juice means the drink will never be crystal clear anyway.)
|Ingredients for a Manhattan|
- Because rye grain grows well in the cold northeastern United States, it was the primary ingredient for whiskey in that part of the country (rye whiskey by law must contain at least 51% rye). And because the Manhattan Cocktail hails from, well, Manhattan, it makes sense that the drink was first made with rye.
- Besides, the sharp taste of rye blends exceptionally well with sweet vermouth and bitters, producing a superior Manhattan.
- Although I prefer either Wild Turkey 101 proof rye or Rittenhouse 100 proof Bottled in Bond for my Manhattans, both ryes can be difficult to find. The two most widely available ryes are Old Overholt Rye and Jim Beam Rye (every liquor store and many supermarkets will stock at least one of these). Either of them is more than serviceable.
- Both Old Overholt and Jim Beam are 80 proof. My preferred brands are 101 and 100 proof, respectively. (I like them for their flavor, not because they contain more alcohol.) Because Wild Turkey and Rittenhouse make stronger drinks, if you use them, you may want to reduce the ingredient quantities to 1½ ounces rye and ¾ ounce sweet vermouth (plus 1 or 2 dashes of bitters).
- In areas of the United States outside the Northeast, corn tends to grow better than rye. And where corn is plentiful, bourbon is usually the most common whiskey (by law, bourbon must contain at least 51% corn).
- No doubt the popularity of bourbon outside the Northeast prompted some drinkers to replace rye with bourbon in their Manhattans. That version of the drink is good, but because bourbon is so much sweeter than rye, the drink can be cloying.
- Solution? If you substitute bourbon for rye in your Manhattan, you need to tinker with the amount of sweet vermouth to add (you’ll likely need less than I specify).
- Gary Regan, mixologist extraordinaire, prefers bourbon in his Manhattans. In his Joy of Mixology he details the proper ratio of sweet vermouth to use with various brands of bourbon. If you want to make the perfect bourbon-based Manhattan, his book is well worth reading.
- Speaking of “perfect,” in cocktail parlance “perfect” usually means equal parts of sweet and dry vermouth. If you want to use bourbon in your Manhattans, I suggest you make a Perfect Manhattan: 2 parts of bourbon, ½ part each sweet and dry vermouth, and bitters. This will balance better with the sweetness of the bourbon.
- I very much prefer Angostura bitters in my Manhattans. But some people like Pechaud’s bitters or orange bitters. If you have them on hand, certainly give them a try. I have, and they make a nice Manhattan. But I still prefer Angostura.
- Much of Wisconsin, particularly the northern part of the state, has a love affair with brandy. And not just any brandy: It has to be Korbel. Many of these folks like their whiskey-based drinks to be made with brandy. The Manhattan, the Old-Fashioned — it doesn’t matter. Brandy is their spirit of choice. In fact, in some Wisconsin establishments, the bartenders will just assume that’s what you want, and mix accordingly. Just a word to the wise in case you voyage there.
- The Manhattan is an “up” drink (i.e., served chilled but without ice in a cocktail glass). That said, many people prefer this drink “on the rocks.” Although some drinks (like the Martini) should never be served this way, I think the Manhattan works OK over ice.
Speaking of the Martini, it — rather than the Manhattan — is probably the best-known cocktail today. The Dry Martini is also probably the Manhattan’s fiercest challenger for the title of “best” cocktail. But the Martini’s rise to prominence may be something of an accident, driven by Prohibition.
Before Prohibition, whiskey-based drinks were America’s favorites. But whiskey needs aging, and Prohibition shut down all the commercial enterprises devoted to producing fine, aged whiskey. So whiskey became scarce. What was available had to be smuggled in (often from Canada).
As a result, gin (which requires no aging) became the favorite bootleg spirit of the speakeasy. Bootleg gin was easy to produce, it mixed well with other ingredients, and it tasted far better than bootleg whiskey. Thus, gin became the popular base spirit in cocktails, and the Martini became one of the most popular drinks.
Even after Prohibition ended, the Martini retained its popularity. It took some time for distillers to restore whiskey supplies (remember, whiskey needs to be aged), so Americans got in the habit of preferring drinks made with gin (or sometimes rum). By the time rye and bourbon became widely available again, the nation’s taste had shifted to less distinctively flavored spirits.
So, Which Is the Best?
So the Martini is better known. But what about my suggestion that the Manhattan is the “best” cocktail? Both the Martini and the Manhattan feature an illustrious liquor mixed with vermouth and bitters (if you don’t think a Martini needs bitters, you should read about the Dry Martini).
Both cocktails offer distinctive flavors, both are easy to mix, and both just plain taste good. Of the two, however, I think the Manhattan has the more interesting flavor, which is why I would hand it the prize.
The Manhattan Cocktail also has a warming effect, which makes it a better cool-weather drink. The Martini, though somewhat less interesting overall, probably offers better refreshment during warmer months.
So as we head into winter, you can look forward to the perfect weather for consuming the world’s best cocktail. You may be shoveling snow and scraping ice, but at least you won’t have to compromise on the quality of your drink.
You may also enjoy reading about:
The Dry Martini Cocktail
The Pegu Club Cocktail
The Gin and Tonic
The Classic Daiquiri