Big Drink

Big Drink

Though the Manhattan has been a bar staple for well over a century, its origins remain cloudy. One popular legend is that it was invented in the 1870s at New York City’s Manhattan Club for a party hosted by Jennie Jerome, also known as Lady Randolph Churchill. That’s since been debunked by historians who point out that, at the time, she was in France and pregnant with Winston.

Whatever the truth, the blueprint is pretty basic: Pick out your favorite rye or bourbon, combine it with a sweetening agent (usually in a 2:1 ratio), add a few drops of herbal bitters for nuance (traditionally, Angostura) and finish it off with something fruity (for example, a Luxardo cherry). Because a classic Manhattan uses vermouth, the aromatic fortified wine, for its sweetener, it offers a more sophisticated flavor profile than its equally popular cousin, the Old-Fashioned, which relies on simple sugar instead. More than one bartender I’ve consulted about this thinks of the Old-Fashioned as a “Manhattan with training wheels.”

In modern times, as our brown spirits have become as mainstream and multifarious as the complements one can pair with them, the Manhattan has taken on a wide variety of new and more playful forms. Unlike the martini, whose aficionados continue to be rankled by its evolution from a hardcore gin/vermouth combo to a vodka/whatever tickles your fancy mashup, Manhattan fans seem readier to embrace creative twists as legitimate variations on the real thing.

So, over the decades, we’ve seen the Perfect Manhattan (made with equal parts dry vermouth—usually French—and sweet, which is typically Italian), the Rob Roy (a Scotch Manhattan), the Brandy Manhattan (a regional favorite), the Cuban Manhattan (a Perfect Manhattan with dark rum) and the Waldorf (with an absinthe-rinsed glass). Relative newbies include the Black Manhattan, created in San Francisco in 2005, which substitutes Amaro Averna for vermouth and combines orange bitters with Angostura, and the smoked Manhattan—a neat special effect that does, indeed, impart some smokiness. There’s even a Reverse Manhattan, which inverts the traditional ratio of two parts brown booze to one part vermouth.

Recently, I enjoyed my own little master class in Manhattan creation at Shell & Bones from Geronimo Hospitality Co. operations director Steve Bayusik. He built a made-to-order cocktail for me using Basil Hayden, a sweet, light-bodied, toasty and mildly spicy bourbon from the Jim Beam family, blending it with Carpano Antica, a full-bodied vermouth produced since the late 18th century, and bitters rich with cinnamon and nutmeg from Fee Brothers. Since shaking can bruise the ingredients, and some dilution is an important part of the drink’s profile, Bayusik recommends stirring a Manhattan in a mixing glass with plenty of ice. He poured mine into a coupe glass, straight up, with a an orange peel garnish. I can’t think of a Manhattan I’ve enjoyed more. (Prices for a Manhattan here start at $16.) I find the Manhattan pairs well with almost any food, but I especially like combining it with cheese dishes. Shell & Bones’s Baked Ricotta ($15), a dip with roasted tomatoes, herbs and truffle oil served with ciabatta, seemed the perfect match.

I also liked the Grilled Cheese ($8) at Ordinary, oozing with four different cheeses and served on Whole G sourdough, with a tomato soup dip on the side. I combined it with a smoked (in pecan wood), on-the-rocks version of the bar’s Manhattan ($14), made with Ezra Brooks 99 bourbon—as in 99 proof, which helps withstand the ice—and served in a lantern-like cabinet for full effect.

New Haven’s specialty cocktail bars seem to love playing in the Manhattan sandbox. 116 Crown owner John Ginnetti currently offers three variations. The first is a “wet” Manhattan ($14), a sweet-tooth’s dream, which shifts the ratio of whiskey to vermouth from 2:1 to 3:2, uses Boissiere sweet French Vermouth, skips the bitters and adds a blend of Luxardo maraschino cherry liqueur with macerated cherries. Another is the NoLita ($19), a twist on the New York Sour, combining whiskey, simple syrup and lemon juice with a float of red wine on top.

The version you should try today, Ginnetti says, is called Lauren’s Driving Home ($23), a name inspired by an incident with a couple of regulars eight years ago. (When Ginnetti gave the husband a warning look for ordering what he thought was one too many, the customer replied, “It’s okay, Lauren is driving home.”) This one combines Booker’s, a premium barrel-strength bourbon, with Bénédictine, The Bitter Truth EXR bitters—a variation no longer being produced, hence the need for haste—and fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice.

I’m passionate about experimenting with Manhattans myself. I’ve enjoyed a nicely balanced Perfect Manhattan ($12) at the venerable gown-town hangout Old Heidelberg. Made with 1776 bourbon—particularly appropriate as the Heidelberg, established in 1757, was alive and kicking back then—it also features Dolin sweet and dry French vermouths. I’ve likewise enjoyed the Manhattan After Dark ($16) at The Anchor Spa, a heady mélange of cigar-smoke infused Woodford Reserve bourbon, Fonseca port wine, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, B&B and Angostura bitters presented in its own little treasure chest. Fans of nut bitters may want to order the Walnut Manhattan ($12) at West Haven’s Dive Bar, with Bulleit bourbon, Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth and Fee walnut bitters.

California’s Black Manhattan has gained popularity in Connecticut, featured at Ordinary with Rowan’s Creek bourbon, a crème de noyaux rinse on the glass and lemon peel garnish ($14). Cast Iron Chef’s Sicilian Manhattan ($15) is Black at heart, combining Evan Williams Bourbon with Amaro Averna and Luxardo cherry nectar. If you’re in the mood for a little road trip, you might check out the Winter Black Manhattan ($16) at Cheshire’s Viron Rondo Osteria, made with bottled-in-bond Rittenhouse rye, Amaro Averna, Praline Pecan Liqueur and vermut rojo (Spanish sweet vermouth). By all means, combine it with the restaurant’s unique appetizer My Mother’s Chips ($18); if you’re like me, you won’t be sorry.

Either way, bottoms up.

Written by Patricia Grandjean. Image 1, featuring a Perfect Manhattan at Old Heidelberg, photographed by Dan Mims. Image 2, featuring Steve Bayusik at Shell & Bones, photographed by Patricia Grandjean.

More Stories