As winter settles in for the long haul, thoughts turn to the warming properties of brown liquors. Such tipples include Scotch whisky (blended or single-malt); Irish whiskey (on a tear right now, it’s generally a bit sweeter and less smoky than Scotch); rye (with its slight tang on the finish); and, of course, bourbon (American whiskey with deep roots in Kentucky).
You’ll note that all these liquors are whiskeys, defined broadly as spirits distilled from grains (barley, rye, or corn) and aged in oak barrels. It is the aging in oak — and in a few cases other woods — that gives these liquors their lovely color, which can range from dark amber to deep brown.
You can make a great variety of cocktails with these various whiskeys, from the humble Scotch and soda to the exotic, slightly illicit Sazerac, made with a splash of absinthe. There are whiskey sours and rusty nails, but the apotheosis of the whiskey cocktail has to be the Manhattan, created, legend has it, when Jennie Churchill (Winston’s mother) threw a party in 1874 for Samuel Tilden, the governor of New York (who would go on to win the popular vote for the presidency in 1876 but lose the electoral college).
I had my first Manhattan during a visit to the city while still in high school. The legal drinking age was lower then. It was New Year’s Day, and my adventurous parents and I spent the better part of the afternoon in a swanky hotel bar drinking Manhattans and eating oysters. It was a marvelous way to start the year and it gave me a deep and abiding affection for Manhattan and Manhattans.
I’d always thought of bourbon as the default choice for Manhattans. But cocktail wizard Dale Degroff, who came to fame as the head bartender of the Rainbow Room, says the Manhattan is the quintessential rye cocktail. Meanwhile, The Savoy Cocktail Book (from the famed Savoy Hotel in London) calls for Canadian Club whiskey.
Degroff says the original Manhattan was made with rye as that was New Yorkers’ drink of choice in the 1870s. Prohibition may account for the choice of Canadian whiskey in the Savoy book, as it was written in the 1920s, when American whiskey (whether rye or bourbon) was not available. As for bourbon, it predominates in the South and I grew up in Texas, so geography plays its part as well.
With these distinctions in mind, I recently made three Manhattans, with each of the different liquors, and had myself a little tasting party. The differences were fairly subtle, with the Canadian Club being a bit lighter than the bourbon, and the rye being a bit spicier than the rest. The fuller, deeper flavor of bourbon was my favorite.
By now you must be wondering, then, what makes a Manhattan a Manhattan? The answer appears to be sweet (aka Italian) vermouth. Regardless of which of the three brown liquors you use, the sweet vermouth is a constant. The ratio of spirits to vermouth ranges from two parts to one to three parts to one, with more vermouth making the drink sweeter. Also essential to the Manhattan is a dash or two of bitters (liquor distilled from or infused with plant and root extracts).
The only approved garnish for a Manhattan is a maraschino cherry. Luxardo are the cherries of choice, the ones that will take your Manhattan over the top.
There are three variations worth noting: a Manhattan made with Scotch is a Rob Roy; one made with dry (aka French) vermouth is a Brooklyn; and a Manhattan made with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth is called a Perfect Manhattan.
for one cocktail
2 oz. rye, bourbon, or Canadian Club
1 oz. sweet vermouth
2 dashes bitters
1 high-quality maraschino cherry as a garnish
Shake all ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker until ferociously cold. Strain into a chilled Martini glass (for straight up) or into an old fashioned glass with one large ice cube. Garnish with that cherry and get to it. Responsibly, of course.
Some good brands of bourbon are Jim Beam (reasonably priced), Maker’s Mark (more top shelf), and Blanton’s (small batch and expensive). For ryes, I like Old Overholt (widely available and not expensive) and Whistle Pig (small batch, expensive, and from Vermont). Vermouth can be Cinzano, Martini & Rossi, or, for something special, Carpano Antica. For bitters, look for Angostura or Peychaud’s, the original brand from New Orleans.