While there are probably many contenders for the title of the all-American whiskey cocktail, one that definitely should be on your short-list is the classic Manhattan. Like many of the classics, there are a lot of unknowns, and more than a few stories that go with it, but there are a few things that are certain. Recipes for the Manhattan have been appearing in bartender’s guides dating back at least as far as the 1870s, so it’s been around for quite some time. And it shares a name with one of New York’s famed five boroughs.
Aside from those two details, well, it’s probably anybody’s guess. One popular legend is that it was created for a banquet being held for presidential candidate Samuel J. Tilden by a nice young lady named Jennie Jerome. A very appealing story, but unfortunately, it’s probably not true. Tilden ran for president in 1876 (as a bit of trivia, he won the popular vote, but lost in the Electoral College to Rutherford B. Hayes). By that time, Miss Jerome was living in England as Lady Randolph Churchill and was the mother of a toddler named Winston. You may have heard of him.
Problems of timing aside, there are references to Manhattan cocktails that had appeared in print before the time of the apocryphal banquet. Still, given the name, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that the cocktail originated in New York, although one legend claims that a Maryland bartender created it to revive a man injured in a duel.
Regardless of the origin, The Manhattan is a very simple drink. Whiskey, vermouth, a dash of bitters, and a garnish, and there you go! And there the debate begins, as well.
First, what are the proper proportions? Some recipes call for three parts whiskey for one part vermouth, while others call for a two-to-one ratio. The official International Bartenders Association (IBA) recipe splits the difference, requiring 2.5-to-one.
And then there’s the whiskey. Should it be made with rye or bourbon? Traditionalists insist that the original drink was made with rye, and there’s good reason to think they’re correct. Before Prohibition, rye was the most common whiskey in the U.S., especially in the northeast. Today, if you order a Manhattan on the east coast, it will probably be made with rye or maybe Canadian whiskey (either is acceptable according to the IBA), but travel west and you’re more likely to get bourbon or maybe Tennessee whiskey.
And don’t forget the vermouth. Is it supposed to be sweet vermouth, or dry vermouth? There are arguments for each, but in the end, either sweet or dry may be used, depending on your taste. According to tradition, the original Manhattan was a “perfect” Manhattan, using both types of vermouth in equal proportion.
But what about those bitters? There once seemed to be an almost limitless variety of brands and flavors, and after years of languishing unnoticed, these little flavor enhancers are coming back into fashion. The most common brand is Angostura, produced in Trinidad. As the name suggests, they add a bitter, tart bite of flavor. Because they’re extremely concentrated, you should use them sparingly. Just a few drops or a dash are all you need, but don’t leave them out, or you haven’t made a Manhattan.
Last, the garnish. The garnish is a relatively modern invention, as cocktails go, and the original Manhattan probably was served without one. It certainly wasn’t served with today’s most common garnish, the maraschino cherry, since the maraschino wasn’t found in the U.S. until the 20th century. You may also find a cocktail onion or a twist of lemon in your cocktail.
So, now that you know what to put together, how do you put it together? It’s actually easy-peasy. Just a few quick shakes and a pour, and you’re on your way to enjoying a classic. And if you’re craving a little variety, that’s easy, too. For a dry Manhattan, use all dry vermouth. If you prefer a sweet Manhattan, skip the dry and use all sweet vermouth. If you prefer your drink sweeter still, add additional sweet vermouth, but please don’t add cherry juice or grenadine!