One of the classic cocktails, a stalwart behind the bar, and never going out of fashion, the Manhattan, in its simplicity, can vary quite a bit; with every variation as tasty as the last. With the boom of the craft cocktail movement the Manhattan is constantly being reinvented, containing all sorts of liquors, bitters and infusions, with all different sorts of adjectives being slipped in between “The” and “Manhattan” on cocktail menus across the country. But it had a beginning much simpler.
The picture-perfect story for the invention of the Manhattan is that it was invented in the early 1870’s by a gentleman named Dr. Iain Marshall, for a party in the Manhattan Club, NYC. This party was being held by Lady Randolph Churchill, future mother of Sir Winston Churchill, in honor of a presidential candidate. From here the drink gained popularity and people ordered it by referring to the place where it was invented; “the Manhattan cocktail.” Unfortunately, Lady Randolph was pregnant with future Sir Winston at the time, and at home in England. Making this version of events highly improbable.
The much less exciting, yet more probable, version of the invention of the Manhattan cocktail is that it was the creation of a bartender people called Black, in a bar on Broadway near Houston Street, in Manhattan. There were many cocktails around during that time in Manhattan being called “the Manhattan,” yet this is the one which survives; although it is worth noting that the Manhattan Club still claims to have been the place of invention of the cocktail in conjunction with the above story. The Manhattan was the first of the cocktails to be named after the five boroughs of New York city, predating many of the others by decades, and, still being the most popular and well known of them all, it’s a true classic if there ever was one.
A Manhattan contains three ingredients: whiskey, preferably rye, Italian sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters. The Manhattan Club claims that the version invented there contained equal parts rye and vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters. Many spirituous cocktails were, in the distant past, more equal parts than they are today, and the Manhattan Club version definitely fits this progression of cocktail history. However, with the story told alongside this recipe being less than believable, it seems we may never find out the original or classic recipe for this cocktail.
Either way, there is now an official IBA cocktail recipe and this denotes the ratio of whiskey (rye is specified) to sweet red vermouth as 2:1. Along with a single dash of angostura bitters; all stirred over ice, strained into a chilled glass, garnished with a maraschino cherry, and served up.
But How Do You Serve Yours?
A 2:1 ratio has fallen out of favor; especially recently as societal trends have taught everyone to turn up their nose at anything too sweet. At my bar we use a 5:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth, accompanied with two dashes of angostura bitters and my bartenders always suggest our rye selection to guests if they’re unsure of what to order.
With the Manhattan being a classic cocktail, it’s rarely featured on menus in its classic form, and bar patrons often have their own whiskey preference when ordering a Manhattan, and bourbon is becoming increasingly more popular than rye.
It is worth noting that rye whiskey was the drink of choice of early Americans and has sustained since the founding of this nation; with some dips along the way. However, when prohibition was enforced American rye whiskey became a very scarce commodity, so the much more readily available Canadian whiskey replaced rye in manhattans. Canadian whiskey and bourbon are often softer, sweeter and more subtle than rye, however it is uncommon for people to order a Manhattan with Canadian whiskey.
My final word is on all of the many a spinoff of the Manhattan, the most well-known of which is a Rob Roy; made with scotch instead of rye. There are others such as the perfect Manhattan, a brandy Manhattan, a Cuban Manhattan and so on and so forth. But in the craft cocktail movement the name Manhattan is now simply synonymous with aged spirit-based cocktails served up. It could be said that including the word Manhattan in the drink’s name makes the patron feel more comfortable and more likely to order said drink.
The Manhattan is an excellent base in which to inject some creative juices and in the booming craft cocktail culture bartenders are not just switching out the whiskey, using another spirit and tweaking the ratios, they’re upending all the ingredients, replacing vermouth with amaro or liqueurs, using and infusing different spirits to replace the traditional whiskey base, and even using a huge variety of other bitters, to create “Manhattans” that can taste tropical, ethereal, luxurious or just simply great!