I was a full-time bartender in NYC for eight years. I qualify by any standard – got drunk every night, worked in a lot of very well-known Manhattan joints, and, best of all, “christened” every single bar I ever worked at save one (I tried, but I got fired after three shifts, never had the chance).
Before I get into discussing the Manhattan, or for that matter cocktails in general, I think there’s a clarification that needs to be made. There is an important distinction to be made between “bartenders” and “mixologists (or “cocktailists,” as I like to call them).” Bartenders not only know how to make drinks, and are walking libraries of drink recipes, but the also know how to: pour. How to pour fast, how to pour accurately, how to make drinks fast, in volume, and repeatedly. They also know how to run a cash register, swap out a keg of beer, determine if you’re too drunk to drive, and, most the vital talent, converse with you, dear stranger, until you are convinced that this bar is the only place for you.
A “cocktailist,” on the other hand, is simply someone who sits at home carefully purchasing, then measuring his ingredients and maybe sharing the finished product with a friend or two. And more power to this person, it’s a fine hobby. It needs to be noted that the opinions of the two frequently don’t mesh: bartenders tend to think of cocktailists as dilettantes, and cocktailists tend to see bartenders as brutish hacks. An important distinction in my mind, because if you are trying to determine the “perfect” cocktail of any variety, you must remember that the paradigm is usually different – bartenders are pouring for the world, cocktailists are pouring for themselves.
To the Manhattan. Ah, beautiful in its simplicity, and beautiful to behold. For the history of the drink, I suggest you consult any of the multitude of websites. But I can simplify: the primary ingredient in a Manhattan has always been, and will always be, Rye Whiskey. There are actually very few true American Rye Whiskeys out there, and the distilling process required in order to earn the title “rye whiskey” is quite tightly controlled. I think it must be over 50% rye, but I’m not sure. Anyway, your choices are Jim Beam, Wild Turkey (they both make a rye AND a bourbon). The traditionalist’s choice has, for years, been Old Overholt, a true rye whiskey distilled, I think, in Pennsylvania. But if I were still a drinking man, and a Californian to boot, I would go with Old Potrero Rye. It’s made by Anchor Steam Brewery. Yep, the same guys in San Francisco who brought you Anchor Steam Beer began producing a rye whiskey a few years ago, and I would imagine it’s excellent, and would have the added value of rarity and excellent conversational value.
Add to this sweet Italian vermouth. The vermouth issue is tricky. It’s hard to imagine adding an Italian liquor to an almost extinct American whiskey would make something MORE authentic, but remember, the drink was created in NYC at the turn of the century (think Italian immigrants. Think Fiorello LaGuardia!) and it makes a bit more sense. I say you can’t go wrong with Cinzano.
Add to this bitters. Bitters is a crucial ingredient. It kills some of the sweetness of the Cinzano, Many people skip the bitters, because they’re looking for sweet. A true traditionalist Manhattan drinker might spit his drink in your face if you suggest losing the bitters!
Of course, a Manhattan should be had over ice. Clean, fresh ice.
2 oz Old Overholt
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
2 splashes bitters
stir over ice in a rocks glass, garnish
Here’s a nice recipe that will do you every time, from my reliable expert Patrick Halm:
2 oz Old Overholt
1/2 oz sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. dry vermouth
1 splash Angostura Bitters
stir over ice in a “rocks” glass.
That’s all. Oh no, wait, it’s not. Three more things:
1. Never more than two Manhattans in a sitting unless you are with very, very good friends who you trust.
2. Manhattans should only be drunk “in season!” That means roughly from after Halloween through the New Year’s Holiday.
3. THE GARNISH ISSUE. This is my own personal observation. Many men will drink Manhattans in an attempt to be more “manly.” But they haven’t really learned to “live” the Manhattan. Therefore, the will choose to garnish their Manhattan with a lemon twist, or not at all. This is a mistake, and I always shake my head in pity when I see a bachelor gentleman refuse the cherry garnish. ALWAYS GO WITH THE CHERRY IN YOUR MANHATTAN. Why? Because, my friends, the cherry is not for you. The cherry is to be offered to the lady with whom you are drinking! Duh! Great Caesar’s Ghost, do I have to tell you people everything!!!!
A lady who drinks a Manhattan may indeed likely be a worthy ride, but will she ride with you? You may never know. But the lady who eats the cherry you proffer, dangling from your fingers? Done deal every time.
To which, I say, dear reader….
-Mark Edward Hornish
Bartender, SoHo Kitchen
Bartender, All-State Cafe
Bartender, Brighton Lounge