Cocktail Hour: Manhattan

DSC_0013If there’s one thing that symbolized my childhood, it was the Manhattan.

Wow, that sounds really dysfunctional, but truly, some of my favorite times that I look back on in my childhood involved my Aunts Dora and Martha, who came over often (particularly for holidays) and my mother would make cocktails. Neither my parents or my grandma (who lived with me) were cocktail drinkers, so when Mom assembled her “bar” (which was just a section of countertop covered with a paper towel), I knew company was coming.  It always included a metal shaker, bar spoon, red cherry “tool” (it was a red syringe-type tool with prongs, specifically to pick cherries out of the jar), Rossi vermouth, I.B. Walker bourbon (which is no longer available in the U.S.– my aunts liked it because it was “smoky”), maraschino cherries and lemon slices. I can’t quite recall what the lemon slices were for, but I was always a fan of smelling the liquor (ahh, musty Vermouth…) and dipping the lemon slices in a little sugar, sneaking bites of them and the cherries.

Of course, other members in the family also liked Manhattans, and the results weren’t nearly so memorable in a positive sense, more in the dysfunctional sense  (what, every family doesn’t have alcohol-fueled fights at the holidays?), so when my mom saw me ordering a Manhattan, she was kind of shocked.  Then again, her chosen drink is a Cosmo, so I think she’s surprised I like something she deems rather masculine.  What can I say?  I like Manhattans.

Actually,  it’s funny, but a lot of men really are quite impressed when I order a Manhattan.  One of my coworkers said, at our holiday party, when I ordered one, “Julie, I had a lot of respect for you before.  I have even more for you now.” Win.  I’ve been in other cities, at the hotel bar alone, and have gotten approving nods from bartenders and male patrons alike when they serve me my Manhattan.  Huh. I guess people really do judge you by your drink choices.

So what makes a Manhattan?  The traditional recipe is as follows (this would be Manhattan #2 in the Savoy Cocktail Book):

1 dash Angostura bitters
2 parts Rye whiskey
1 part sweet vermouth

Shake well, drain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry.

There are a few things that have changed since this recipe has become standard.  For example, most places around here use Bourbon, and it’s considered equally as “classic”, if not regional, as using Rye whiskey.  In Wisconsin, according to Josh Durr from Molecular Bartending, it’s common to use brandy.  In general, when I order a Manhattan, I’ll order Maker’s Mark (in a bar that might not have a deep bourbon selection) or Woodford Reserve.  At home, I use Four Roses Bourbon, which has had the opposite trajectory as I.B. Walker– it used to only be available in China Japan and Europe (Thanks, Jay!), and now it’s available in the U.S.  Use what you like, be it Rye or Bourbon.  Cocktails are all about what you like, right?

It also matters what kind of vermouth you use.  Now, I’ll admit– a vermouth like Carpano Antica, which is considered the creme de la creme of vermouths, is fantastic.  You can easily drink it as an aperitif, which I can’t say about a whole lot of vermouths out there.  Unfortunately, vermouth– both sweet and dry– spoils, even in the refrigerator, after about two weeks, and Carpano runs around $30 a bottle– so if I’m only going to use about 1/4 of it before it spoils, I can’t quite justify the price.   Instead, I use Noilly Prat or Cinzano, which both run less than $10 and taste way better than Stock or Rossi.  If you’ve had a Manhattan made with fresh vermouth, as opposed to one made with stale or  musty vermouth, you’ll know– it makes a difference!  Most bars use Stock or Rossi, neither of which I like, and it’s usually gone bad anyway.  This is why most Martini drinkers are afraid of anything but a dry martini– bad vermouth!  My mother, I’m sure, still has one of the bottles of vermouth she used when I was a kid, and when I smelled my (too old) vermouth in the fridge, it brought me back to childhood (and not in a good way).  Mom, if you’re reading: pitch the vermouth!

Shaking vs. Stirring– the one thing Josh emphasized more than anything is that Manhattans are stirred.  Unless it has a juice in it (like last week’s Aviation), it has to be stirred.  So, Mom, though your vermouth’s decade of origin is questionable, you were right on with the stirring.

Rocks vs. Up– it should be served up, too, though I’ll be honest– depending on the bar, I’ll order mine on the rocks.  Tonic, Rookwood?  Up.  Mr. Pitiful’s? Rocks.

And, of course, a Manhattan is not a Manhattan without bitters.  I love Rolland’s Manhattan at Rookwood– he uses homemade, bourbon barrel bitters (and a little Maraschino).  You will probably use Angostura (who, earlier this year, had some exportation issues out of Trinidad, but everything is okay now) or Peychaud’s.  I usually end up with Angostura.  I’m tempted to go to Colonel de Ray’s and make some Regan’s Orange Bitters #5.  Very tempted (I think that’s another post).

I will definitely enjoy a Manhattan somewhere tonight (even if it’s at home).  Next week?  The Negroni!

29 thoughts on “Cocktail Hour: Manhattan”

  • There’s a great story in J. B. West’s book Upstairs at the White House about when Bess and Harry Truman first were residents there. Bess ordered manhattans for both of them. The bartender made them exact like the recipe Julie lists above. When they were served, the Trumans sent them back and Bess made a comment about being served fruit punch. The bartender tried a few more recipes and they were sent back too. Exasperated, the bartender poured straight whiskey into two glasses and sent them out. Bess sent back a note saying that those were perfect manhattans and why didn’t he make them that way the first time. 🙂
    .-= Carla´s last blog ..Short Hops (Tastings and Growlers): March 19, 2010 =-.

    • Yay! Success! 🙂 I actually need to buy a new bottle myself, since mine is more like a month old. Darn, I have to go to the Party Source! Darn!

  • The two one ratio with bitters ( I like extra bitters ) is the holy trinity.

    The Trumans were notorious for there love of Bourbon. I love that story although not a manhattan. I can appreciate a women that loves her Bourbon !

    A few suggestions would be to try things like a port, madiera, or heavier sherry instead of vermouth. The same can be done with martinis with dry sherries and other fortified wines such as Lillet.

    Making bitters you say ? We teach that in our classes…

  • I made Manhattan bourbon balls one year for Christmas. They were great. Normal bourbon ball recipe, but, instead of all bourbon, you do 2 parts bourbon and one part Vermouth. Throw a dash of bitters and chopped cherries into the mix. Wonderful.

  • Julie, I didn’t know vermouth spoiled. EEK! We always try to keep a bottle of sweet vermouth around for my mother-in-law for her Rob Roys. Her version is SUPER CHEAP scotch with a splash of sweet vermouth. I personally can’t stand the stuff. Our bottle is AT LEAST 2 years old. This could be an expensive kind gesture for us to always have fresh vermouth on hand. Hmmm, maybe I can get some of those little airport bottles. I bet Party Source has them. She is worth it!

    • They have Noilly Prat in half-bottles, that’s the smallest I saw of any “decent” stuff. It’s about four bucks. I picked up a small bottle at Party Source yesterday. I don’t like to waste, so the small bottles are okay by me. I’d rather spend a little extra!

      • Hi Julie,
        Thanks for the business. You’re right about the 375 ml vermouth; that’s the best way to buy them so they stay fresh. Also, store them in the refrigerator for longest life.

        Also, ahem, a minor correction about Four Roses. Previous owner Seagram straight Bourbon was previously sold in Japan and Europe only,, not China, while America was stuck with (as Master Distiller Jim Rutledge puts it) a “rotgut” blended whiskey. Happily, the new owners Kirin since 2003 have done right by the distillery, and have allowed it to rise to new heights in 2010, the year of its centenary. You can read the whole story here in my article:

        Would love to drink a Manhattan with you someday,
        Jay Erisman

        • Jay also carries Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry at the Party Source, which is perhaps the worlds finest vermouth. Dolin is the last surviving vermouth producer in France’s Chambéry region.

  • We must be soul sisters; Manhattans and Old Fashioneds were my parents’ drinks of choice. Such vivid memories! Thanks for the tip about the vermouth, you learn something new everyday. As for me, I think I’ll order a Manhattan next time I’m out and shock the hell out of everyone.

  • My husband loves a good Manhatten! I am printing this off for him and I am sure we will go out for new vermouth today.

  • Love a great Maker’s Manhattan! Hope you get a chance to visit Maker’s Mark Distillery and take the free tour then take the free Kentucky Cooperage (bourbon barrel-making factory) tour for a great Bourbon Country experience. Maker’s Mark is located just outside downtown Lebanon, Ky. and the cooperage is right on Main Street. You can register to win a free Bourbon & Barrels Getaway right now at Drawing is April 2. Enter every day. No purchase is necessary.

  • A quick note the Cork and Bottle and I think the Party Source also have their own hand picked numbered KY Bourbon. They go down and sample the barrels, buy them and private label. Each one is slightly different, I’ll bet they would host a WMDMC Spring Kentucky tasting if we asked.

  • “If there’s one thing that symbolized my childhood, it was the Manhattan.”
    Every so often my mom would have a Manhatten ready for my dad when he came home and I would get to taste them. To this day I can’t get mine to taste like my mom’s. When I tell people I’m trying to copy the Manhattan my mom used to give me when I was a kid, I get some strange looks.

  • The booze soaked cherries were my favorite as a kid! We all knew how to make them by the time we could reach the counter. I can only drink them after a few other drinks. Once at a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Gala, I ordered Manhattans and most definately got the nod of approval from both the male bartender and many gentlemen in tuxedos standing around the bar. It is the one time that I remember being proud of ordering a drink. Thanks for the blog…..great memories!

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