Saturday, April 5, 2014

Two guys and a drink: The Manhattan

In "Two Guys and a Drink", Dave and John focus on a single drink and experiment with multiple recipes and ingredients as they search for their own "perfect" recipe. Of course, the "perfect" recipe is purely subjective; as with life, the cocktail is a journey, not a destination, and you should find your own. For this post, they are taking on a classic: The Manhattan.

The Manhattan may not be the oldest cocktail around, but it is an undeniable classic. David Embury, a beacon of light for all amateur mixers and imbibers, lists it as one of his Six Basic Cocktails. Its history, like most cocktails, is a muddled one, but it was most certainly invented in New York City in the 1870s and first appeared in bartender guides as early as 1882. The Manhattan is especially notable, according to David Wonderich, for leading the way for other vermouth-blended cocktails. Is it possible that, without the Manhattan, the Martini would never have the prominent cocktail it is today? Probably not - come on, it's the Martini - but that does not mean the Manhattan's contributions to the evolution of the cocktail should be underestimated.

When a drink has been around for 140 years, it is only inevitable that various iterations of the recipe will appear. The Manhattan is uniformly comprised of whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters; from there, all all bets are off. Many early versions of the Manhattan consisted of a 1:1 ratio of vermouth and rye. Some recipes, such as the one included in the estimable Harry Johnson's 1882 "Bartender's Manual", called for one part whiskey, one part vermouth, and a dash or two each of gum (simple) syrup, bitters (orange!), and either curacao or absinthe. So there's that...

The standard recipe these days, of course, is a 2:1 ratio of rye whiskey to sweet vermouth, blessed with a couple dashes of aromatic bitters such as Angostura. Combine the ingredients in a mixing glass with ice, stir until cold, and serve in a chilled martini glass or coup. For the purposes of this post, Dave and John will launch from this tried and true method.

ROUND 1 - First Impressions

Sweet nectar of the gods, this must be... the sweet nectar of the gods! I'm not sure I've ever been this excited for a writing assignment before.What were your initial thoughts, Dave?


I thought the Manhattan was invented in Queens? 

Not funny.


Okay, fine, this is neither the time nor the place for blasphemy. 

My initial thoughts are this is one of only three drinks that I'll snob out and send back if I don't like it. The others being martinis and margaritas, but that's for another post. It really is one of the core cocktails, and it really stands out because it's a) one of those great pre-prohibition-and-the-switch-in-the-American-palate-from-bitter-to-sweet wonderments, and b) is great right out of the textbook, but can be safely hacked around with in any number of different ways that make it really transcendent without changing its basic nature enough to make it really a different drink. 

It's pretty glorious when you get it right--what I really like about it is that it's the right amount of svelte, but it's less patrician than a martini is, and with a bit more of an aggressive edge. 

One-hundred percent agreed, on all counts. As far as mixed drinks go, this is pretty straightforward. So much, of course, is dependent on the ingredients, and this is one of those situations where the whole really is the sum of its parts. Use quality and care, and you will be rewarded.

The mix: at their worst, Manhattans can be overly sweet, even cloying. My original taste of one was closer to a 1:1 mix of bourbon and sweet vermouth--which is probably good if you're not used to the burn of the whiskey, and if you're not used to strong cocktails the extra vermouth does tone down the otherwise powerful mojo of the drink… but that ratio tastes candied to me. 2:1 lets the whiskey shine through, and sets the sweet vermouth in place as a bit of mellowing and counterpoint instead of being dominant. 

I skipped the 1:1 ratio altogether and went straight to 2:1. Like you said, this let's the whiskey take center stage and the vermouth to play a more complementary role. The other truly critical thing here is the bitters. It may be a cliche at this point, but it is true: bitters are to cocktails as spices are to cooking. The Manhattan is the perfect opportunity to taste what that means. Without the bitters, the whiskey and vermouth never really blend and you end up with a unbalanced and unsatisfying drink.

I started off using McKenzie Rye, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, a couple dashes of Angostura and a lemon twist. It had a dark, burned caramel color and the spice of the rye really came through on first taste. The vermouth gave the drink a moderate viscosity, allowing it to coat your tongue in Manhattany goodness. I was almost content to just stop here. But we're here to learn, damnit, and so we must soldier on.

ROUND 2 - Experimentation

So we've got the basics down. Where did we go from there? 

For a drink like this, straight to the ingredients. As mentioned, this is one of those cocktails that has no available camouflage for second-rate ingredients. No fruit juice, no syrups, so on and so forth--so you'll get out of it exactly what you put into it. 

The whiskey: I tried it with bourbon and with rye. Bourbon's a sweeter liquor than rye is due to the corn in the mash, so that's something to watch--bourbon, when you get closer to the 1:1 ratio, really is far too sweet. Rye is drier, harsher, a bit stonier, so if you LIKE the sweet and not the burn, there's your cue for how you might like to balance it out. 2:1 rye to sweet vermouth was about perfect for me. 

Agreed, the simple act of switching from bourbon to rye really makes a difference. My first three variations were all with McKenzie Rye, but the bottle ran out before the experiments did and rye is nigh impossible to get in Cambodia at the moment. So while I wasn't able to do a straight one-to-one comparison of each variation, it was also plainly clear that what works with rye does not necessarily work with bourbon, and vice versa. At least for my tastes. I was able to use other complementary ingredients on the sweeter side (orange bitters, Mirabelle La Cigone) with the rye that just would not have worked with the bourbon.


The vermouth: this is the first time I coughed up the fifteen bucks for Dolin vermouth. I generally think of vermouth as all but a throwaway drink, not fit for much on its own, so fifteen for this vs. seven for one of the other brands sounds pretty ludicrous. I probably won't use the Dolin every time, it IS pricey, but if I'm really going for it with the drink, it turns out (who knew this wasn't just one of those my-cocktail-is-hipper-than-yours things) it actually is worth the blow to the wallet. Much more herbal and complex, a slight bitterness, and less candied than others I've tried. Especially great with the rye, they set each other off well. 

I used Dolin's sweet vermouth in each of my variations. Quality ingredients makes a difference here, as we've said, and that applies to the vermouth just as much as the whiskey. The only other point of comparison I have at the moment is Martini's Rosso. There is nothing wrong with Martini, but the Dolin really is a superior partner to the rye in this situation.

A quick word on vermouth: this is effectively a wine. Once open, it does lose flavor. Keep it in a dark cool place (the fridge is perfect, if you have space), and when possible buy in the smallest quantities available. Rant over.

The bitters: here I'm gonna seriously snob out--I used my own aromatic. I tried it with a grapefruit-hops mix that I'd done, but it was a bit too sharp--the deeper herbs and orange notes in the more standard aromatic mixture were perfect. That said, the Manhattan is a muscular enough drink that it'll stand up to all manner of different bitters without getting overwhelmed, so it's a good one to screw around with and see what you like--while you CAN overwhelm pretty much any drink with too much bitters, this is one where you can put most any kind in there without worrying overmuch about spoiling it. 

For the most part I stuck with Angostura's. With so many types of bitters available now - and, frankly, the relative ease with which you can make your own - it is easy to turn your nose down at something so pervasive. But whether you're just getting started or building a bar that would make Gary Regan blush, this is still a staple and will serve you well in most drinks, including Manhattans. That said, experimenting with the type and quantity of bitters you use is a great way to make subtle changes to your Manhattan.

I did try one variation with some homemade orange bitters, but I found the combination a little too sweet for my tastes. I'm also a big fan of the way a lemon garnish contributes to the Manhattan - see below - and ultimately decided to put the orange bitters back on the shelf and save it for another day.

The garnish: If you take only one lesson from all of this, let it be thus: spare yourself the chemically medicinal hell of the supermarket maraschinos. It's fun tying the stem into a knot with your tongue, but aside from the parlor-trick value, they really are godawful. Escape is not without its cost, though--I used Luxardo, an Italian brand that like the Dolin will make your eyes water when you see the price tag… but more even than the vermouth, it's worth it not to put in all the artistry on a great cocktail only to defile it with one of those little abominations. A little bit (less than a teaspoonful) of the liquid from the jar, mixed into the drink, gives a tiny bit (really sparing, after all my griping about overly-sweet drinks) of sweetness, but the depth it gives the flavor profile is worth it--and a bit of body and richness to the color. Depending on how you feel about the whole "sweet" thing, leave it out and you won't really miss it, but it can be really good. 

I didn't know you could tie cherry stems with your tongue...

I love the way the oil and fragrance from a thick cut of a lemon twist adds a hint of zest and citrus to sharpness of the rye and sweetness from the vermouth. It's just perfect.

I used an orange twist with two variations but was not blown away by either. A major problem was the orange itself. Oranges aren't native to Cambodia and it is difficult, especially this time of year, to find good ones. A great reminder to stay local and seasonal when possible!

I played around with a few other ingredients see how they worked with the basic formula. For the most part I kept the 2:1 ratio, but reduced the vermouth a little bit to accommodate the addition of a third ingredient. After disappointment with the orange bitters experiment, I tried Mirabelle La Cigogne Eaux de Vie, a clear, orange flavored fruit brandy. It managed to cut the sweetness down as well as the spiciness of the rye, all while adding a hint of orange. If you're in the mood for something with a milder flavor profile without being overly sweet, this might be something worth trying. I also found made for a lighter, smoother drink; it went down with ease and the flavors did not linger too long after swallowing. If you want a Manhattan with dinner but don't want the drink to overwhelm your palate, this could be an option.

That wasn't quite my bag, though, and so I grabbed my bottle of Benedictine and went to work. By this time my McKenzie had bottomed out so I switched to Maker's, using a ratio of 2 parts bourbon, 0.75 vermouth, and 0.25 Benedictine. Although it only represented a quarter of the modifying compound, the Benedictine really darkened the color of the drink. It complemented the sweetness of the Maker's well, and made up for the lack of spice and grit by adding a faint herbal profile to the scent and start, or attack phase, of the drink.  Not bad, but not the final stop on this little journey.

ROUND 3 - Playing with fire

The attempts with Mirabelle and Benedictine led me to Green Chartreuse, which I offer here as my final take on the Manhattan.
It only made up about 10% of the modifier with the vermouth, and while you could definitely play with that ratio a bit I thought this was a good starting point. It also paired well with the Belle Meade Bourbon, which is a little more aggressive of a bourbon than, say, Maker's. The drink was a beautiful caramel color, slightly translucent, and incredibly light and refreshing to taste. Like the Benedictine, the Chartreuse adds an herbal quality, but with less of a medicinal flavor. Topped with a lemon twist it really hit the spot and is a simple, fuss-free way to play with the basic Manhattan recipe.

On the one I made for my final submission (after much - hic - research, I hope y'all appreciate the sweat and sacrifice here), I added a twist from a blood orange--great match on the color, and the taste is incredible. Since it was that kind of night, I flamed the orange peel over the cocktail, then sat back and took a moment to savor the smug factor of knowing that any bar in DC would've tacked another five bucks onto the cost of the cocktail right there. It's not exactly necessary per se, and it's not traditional, but if you're really grooving on the whole craft-and-artistry thing, it's a great touch, and adds a tiny bit of burnt orange to the flavor profile. That, plus the orange notes in the bitters, plus the herbal notes in the Dolin, plus the basic earthiness of the rye, and I kinda knocked my own socks off. 

My other favorite variation on this, if you have a lot of extra time on your hands, is to barrel age it. I don't have a barrel, so I buy charred oak chips from a home brewing supply store up the street, put those in a jar, and mix the rest of the jar's worth of Manhattan; the proportions are easy enough to make that a pretty easy exercise.

One and two-liter casks can be gotten online for not very much money, but a) I've been too cheap to buy one when I can get exactly the same effect for two dollars from the home brewing store, and b) once you use the cask for one drink, you really can't then switch it up and use it for something else the next time. That just gets silly after a while.

The other advantage to using the chips is that the surface area is a LOT bigger than putting it in the cask, which means you can get the same effect in a week that would've taken you several weeks to get in a cask itself, and with a lot less fuss. Mix it up, shake it once a day, and taste it once a while. When it gets oaky enough for you, strain the drink into another bottle quick before it gets overdone, chuck the chips, and there you go.


Dave's Blood Orange Manhattan
2oz - Redemption Rye Whiskey
1oz - Dolin Sweet Vermouth
a very small touch of Luxardo maraschino cherry syrup
several dashes of Dave's Aromatic Bitters… I like the bitters, what can I say? 

Because I put the bit of syrup in, I shook this rather than stirring it. Technically speaking if you don't need to emulsify anything the correct answer is "stir it," but I like the mouthfeel that comes from shaking with ice. So… to flame the orange peel, light a match and hold it close over the surface of the drink; grab the peel in your other hand, bend it double and give it a sharp squeeze, aiming through the flame towards the drink. The spray of oil will ignite on the way down. 


John's Chartusian Manhattan:
9cl - Belle Meade Bourbon
4cl - Dolin Sweet Vermouth
0.5cl - Green Chartreuse
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Pour ingredients into mixing glass with ice and stir for 15 to 20 seconds, until cold. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Cut a thick piece of lemon as garnish and twist over the drink to release the oils. Place the garnish in the drink or throw away.

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