This past Saturday I was teaching a class on cocktail bitters and one of the students mentioned they had purchased a well-known cocktail book and it only contained two recipes containing bitters. That got me thinking about drinks where bitters are an essential ingredient AND are so simple in execution that it would seem difficult to mess up.
This lead me to the Manhattan Cocktail. The Manhattan Cocktail was created near the end of the 1800's, most likely at the Manhattan Club in New York City. Around the same time, you'd often find a lot of drinks with the same recipe but with a names such as the "Jockey Club" or the "Turf Club" cocktail. Basically, these were other clubs who wanted to get in on the deliciousness of the drink served at one of their competitors.
Often, when ordering a Manhattan at a bar or restaurant, what I get is a shadow of what the cocktail should resemble. Even though the recipe is so simple, there are many ways it can be, well, messed up. But first, the recipe:
2 ounces Rye Whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Combine all ingredients in an iced mixing glass and stir for 20-30 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry.
Let's look at where this cocktail can go wrong. First, while bourbon is the most widely used whiskey in the Manhattan, Rye whiskey is more traditional. Most distilleries in the Northeast created rye whiskey (using 51% rye grains versus the 51% of corn used in making bourbon) while bourbon was much easier to get in the Southern states. Second, you have to use fresh sweet vermouth. Vermouth is a fortified wine and, like wine, will begin to oxidize once opened. The bars that keep an open bottle of vermouth on the shelf for months are basically serving spoiled wine. For best results, vermouth should be stored in the refrigerator, preferably after using a wine saver vacuum to remove the air from the bottle. This will keep it fresh for 1.5 to 2 months.
The third thing that can go wrong with a Manhattan is not using bitters. Bitters bring together the various flavors of the bourbon and vermouth and create a harmony that isn't there otherwise. If you don't believe me, make a Manhattan with and without bitters to see what I mean. Luckily, Angostura Bitters are easy to find and more importantly, delicious. Check your local grocery store, I bet they have Angostura.
Finally, too many Manhattans are shaken rather than stirred. Your Manhattan should be crystal clear with a beautiful red hue. If you shake the drink, you end up aerating the liquids, giving it a cloudy and muted appearance. Plus, when you shake, tiny ice crystals will end up floating on top of your cocktail which will continue to add water as they melt, thus muting the flavors.
So while the Manhattan seems like a deceptively simple drink to make, often you only find bad ones. So what do you do? Make yours at home the right way and enjoy all that is great about the Manhattan Cocktail.
Photo: Courtesy of Naotake Muayama.