The Manhattan is, of course, one of the more iconic denizens of cocktaildom – and one of the oldest. Ted Haigh describes it as probably the oldest cocktail still made as it originally was, although this begs the question of how, exactly, it was made originally. The closest you’re likely to get to an answer comes from David Wondrich’s Imbibe, the first cocktail book to win the James Beard Award and a remarkable work of cocktail history. Wondrich suggests the Manhattan grew out of the earlier Vermouth Cocktail, effectively punching it up with whiskey – presumably rye, although early recipes don’t always specify. The widely accepted story that the Manhattan was first mixed at the behest of Winston Churchill’s mother is bogus; a more likely origin story has it coming from the Manhattan Club, a New York City men’s social club, sometime during the 1870s. Whatever its true history, there are many derivations of what at its heart is a pretty simple drink – whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. We’ve been hard at work in the propercocktail test labs of late, and tried the Manhattan four different ways, three coming from Wondrich’s book.
This is probably as close to the original way a Manhattan was made as you’re going to get, according to Wondrich, and comes from an 1884 bartending guide. I’ve made some minor deviations; the recipe that follows here is as I made it.
Two dashes (1/4 tsp.) orange bitters
Two dashes simple syrup*
1.5 oz 100-proof rye (Knob Creek makes a good one)
1.5 oz. sweet vermouth (Carpano Antica)
Stir with ice; strain into a rocks glass; add ice if desired (I did – generally Manhattans are served neat in cocktail glasses, but to me they just seemed to belong in a rocks glass. Sue me.)
This is by any measure a solid beverage, serving up a perfect balance between the rye and the vermouth, with the orange bitters adding a hint of citrus to keep things from getting too boring. If you’re going to explore the Manhattan, this is probably the best place to start, and if you’re satisfied, there’s no really great reason to keep going. It’s not quite an amazing drink, but it’s close. A very strong four livers.
Rather early on in the Manhattan’s history, a vermouth-heavy variant arose, although it “had no legs” as Wondrich puts it. He takes his recipe from the 1887 version of Jerry Thomas’s Bar-Tender’s Guide. Interestingly, this recipe appears word-for-word in the Savoy Cocktail Book, uncredited, as the Manhattan Cocktail No. 1, which suggests Craddock was not just an inventive bartender in his own right, but also something of a plagiarist. It also raises a lot of questions about the provenances of his recipes – not necessarily casting aspersions on them but certainly making one wonder how many of them he actually made and served and how many he took from various other sources just to pad out his book. In any case,
1 tsp. Maraschino liqueur
1 oz. rye (Wondrich says Manhattans should always be made with 100-proof whiskey)
2 oz. sweet vermouth
3 dashes Boker’s bitters** (I used The Bitter Truth’s Aromatic Bitters)
2 dashes simple syrup (if desired)
Stir with ice etc.
This is, not surprisingly, a much sweeter variant, with the vermouth dominating the proceedings. It doesn’t really need the simple syrup as the vermouth is plenty sweet. Much more like an aperitif than a true cocktail, this one is best suited for those who aren’t especially keen on rye, or whiskey in general – in which case, there are better drinks out there for them anyway. Still and all, it’s pretty darn good. Four livers.
Wondrich pulls this version from an 1892 book called The Flowing Bowl by one William “The Only William” Schmidt. It’s the most complex of the recipes, and, arguably, the best. This one calls for a 2:1 ratio of rye to vermouth, which by midcentury had become more or less the standard.
2 dashes of simple syrup
2 dashes of bitters (Angostura)
1 dash of absinthe
2 oz. rye
1 oz. sweet vermouth
1/4 tsp. Maraschino liqueur
Mmmmm. The absinthe and Maraschino are here in the perfect amounts to add some subtle touches, bringing extra life to the blending of the rye and vermouth and tempering the rye flavors a bit. My favorite of the four versions we tried, but still not quite sneaking into vaunted five-liver territory. Four livers.
This is essentially the modern version of the Manhattan, using a 2:1 rye to vermouth ratio and not much else. However, this is a minor variation known today as a “perfect” Manhattan, blending some dry vermouth into the mix.
1 1/2 oz. rye
3/8 oz. sweet vermouth
3/8 oz. dry vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters.
Shake with ice, strain, etc. Add a cherry.
Another solid take on the Manhattan, although less interesting than the first three recipes. Hey – rye, bitters, some sweetness, a cherry – this version tastes not too dissimilar from an Old-Fashioned. So, of course, it’s good. Four livers.
I think the upshot here is that you can’t really go wrong with a Manhattan. Unless you’re using lousy vermouth. Barring that, you’re going to wind up with a pretty darn good drink.
* Throughout Wondrich’s recipes, gum syrup is called for, rather than simple syrup. Gum (or, as it often listed in older cocktail guide, gomme) is essentially rich (2:1) simple syrup, with gum arabic added. The gum provides, supposedly, a silkier mouthfeel. I haven’t sourced any gum arabic and probably won’t bother. To me, a drink should have a mouthfeel pretty much like, uh, liquid. Again, sue me.
** Boker’s Bitters were a standard 19th century bitters, long-defunct. But they’re back! You can get them here.