(We gave writer Tara Flores a mission - to ferret out all she could about the iconic Manhattan cocktail, and report back to us. Here are her findings, and a conclusive opinion on this heralded cocktail. -10Best Editors)
Much loved and well-written about, the Manhattan cocktail is a classic. Some say it is the "gateway" cocktail, referring to the alluring world of mixology.
Since the 1800’s this mainstay, which most likely originated as one of the five borough cocktails devised to represent the areas of NYC, has consisted - more or less - of two parts whiskey, one part vermouth, and few dashes of bitters, stirred with ice and strained then topped with a lemon or cherry garnish.
Classic Manhattan Cocktail — Photo courtesy of Courtesy Gojee.com
Done well, the classic version (rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters & a Maraschino cherry) is a balanced and smooth choice with only the mild kick of moderate alcohol content.
Variations on this recipe abound. The most important factor governing differing combinations is the matter of preference. Interested parties may choose to use Canadian whiskey or bourbon instead of rye. French or “dry” vermouth can be substituted for the Italian sweet vermouth and digestif-type bitters as opposed to aromatic bitters are also an option.
Today, in the era of cocktail renaissance when new old-fashioned speakeasies are rumored to be on (over, under?) every other corner, there’s no shortage of quality ingredients. Companies like The Bitter Truth and Fee Brothers are producing some of the finest bitters available and many critics agree that the vermouth made by Vya is superior. Both bitters and vermouth can be made in in so many variations and infused with so many herbs, spices and other flavors that switching up these elements can take your Manhattan experience to a whole other place.
So with all of these choices, where do you go to get the real deal? You don’t necessarily have to know the secret password or have a hard sought-after reservation to enjoy a top notch Manhattan- but it might help. Tracing the drink back to the epicenter, one would do well to sneak into the dark depths of modern-day craft-style bar Death & Company in the Lower Eastside of Manhattan. So-named for the belief commonly held in 1919 surrounding the Volstead Act, the 18th Amendment ushering in Prohibition, that “to drink alcohol is to live a life shadowed by death.”
Out west, Bourbon and Branch in San Francisco can transport you to the 1920’s when house rules demand discreet and hushed ordering and patrons never, ever stand at the bar. At an establishment such as this, that offers hands-on cocktail classes through their Beverage Academy, you are sure to receive concoctions nearing perfection.
In Seattle, the best place to enjoy a Manhattan, many locals agree, is award-winning classic cocktail bar Zig Zag Café, especially on nights when local legend Murray Stenson is behind the bar.
To test the aforementioned “gateway” theory, I stopped into a local craft-bar (The Sexton in Ballard) and ordered my first proper Classic Manhattan. I tried to remember the movie “Some Like it Hot” and Kerouak’s “On The Road.” Alas, Bart Simpson’s image, as he mixed up Manhattans for the mobsters of Springfield, was the most vivid. (Maybe I shouldn’t have admitted that, but there it is.)
I thought the drink was good; very drinkable and smooth, not too boozy or too sweet. It was a surprisingly enjoyable cocktail experience for someone who generally sticks to beer and wine. I also appreciated that the drink didn’t arrive in an intimidating, long-stemmed cocktail glass along with an open invitation to spill at least half, but rather a very approachable short, simple glass.
There’s definitely something to be said for ordering within the bar’s capabilities. You can’t get a drink like this at a sports bar. And as I sat there sipping, I recalled one more image, that of my grandmother. Everyone in the family always said that the Manhattan was her favorite drink. Now I can finally see why.