Boozehound 101: The Manhattan

The Manhattan is a classic, whiskey-based cocktail that can be served up blended or on the rocks. — photo by Glenn Dettwiler

In the classic modern mixology volume, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, David A. Embury lists six classic cocktails that any bartender worth their salt should be able to make you and make you well. The way I see it, if we’re going to talk about the wide kaleidoscope of booze that’s out there, we might as well start at the very beginning with the first of these classic cocktails, the Manhattan.

With its booze-heavy profile, the Manhattan is the perfect way to ward off the winter cold. And, if you’re getting tired of drinking your whiskey straight, then the Manhattan is the perfect way to shake up your booze routine.

The genius of the Manhattan lies in its simplicity: take two parts whiskey and add one part sweet vermouth, a dash of Angostura bitters and a brandied (or maraschino) cherry or two and you’ve pretty much got one in your hand. (After you stir it all together over ice, of course.)

The classic recipe calls for rye or Canadian whiskey, but the simplicity of this cocktail lends itself to other whiskeys. Replace the rye or canadian whiskey with scotch and you have a Rob Roy. Substitute bourbon, Japanese whiskey or straight up American whiskey and you can change the flavor profile of the cocktail in ways that are both subtle and interesting to explore.

The origin of the cocktail is steeped in the kind of apocryphal lore that history buffs will love: allegedly it was created for a banquet hosted by Winston Churchill’s mother in the early 1870s in honor of the then presidential candidate Samuel Tilden — who shares the unfortunate distinction of being the last presidential candidate before Al Gore to win the popular vote but lose the electoral vote.

But enough minutia! To the Manhattan!

Color: Dark amber to light brown — the sweet vermouth really darkens the overall shade of the cocktail.

Aroma: Boozy and herbal, thanks to the botanical nature of the sweet vermouth.

Taste: In a word: awesome. If you find straight whiskey entirely unpalatable, a good dose of vermouth sweetens and takes the edge off the taste of alcohol. The dash of Angostura bitters and the cherries enhance the subtleties of the various flavors.

Finish: Warm and deep, the harshness of the whiskey is cut by the sweetness of the vermouth, resulting in a warming that is both gradual and flavorful — exactly what you’d want in a cocktail.

The Localizer: Clinton Street Social Club has the classic Manhattan on its menu, while Trumpet Blossom offers an Iowa twist on the cocktail and The Motley Cow is currently offering a Lower Manhattan with sweet vermouth, bourbon and cardamom amaro.

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