The Back Story of
It must have been one heck of a party. As the story goes, during the presidential race of 1876, New York socialite and heiress Jenny Jerome held a campaign function for candidate Samuel Tilden at the famed Manhattan Club. Miss Jerome, soon to become Lady Randolph Churchill and mother of Winston, requested a special cocktail be created for the event.
What the staff devised consisted of rye whiskey, Angostura Bitters and Italian (sweet) vermouth. Like a spark to tinder, the cocktail swept through New York society. The drink that we now know as the Manhattan literally became the toast of the town. It’s said that financial mogul J. P. Morgan drank the cocktail every day at the end of trading on Wall Street.
The secret to the Manhattan’s enduring popularity can be attributed to the natural affinity between spirits and fortified wines. These wines — venerable products such as Sherry, port, vermouth and Madeira — are imbued with tremendous flavors and lavishly textured bodies, making them incomparable ingredients in cocktails. The annals of mixology are replete with classic drink recipes that marry fortified wines and spirits and today’s practitioners are continuing to explore and redefine the boundaries of this magical pairing.
The explanation for this compatibility lies in how fortified wines are crafted. Back in the days of sailing ships, sending wines across the oceans required vintners to add spirits to their wines to enable them to withstand the rigors of long sea voyages. The spirit, typically a grape distillate, raised the wine’s alcohol level from 13% to upwards of 20%. Out of necessity was born an entirely new and delightful genus of potables, namely fortified wines. Using fortified wines in cocktails is a resurgent “lost art.” Incorporating vermouths, Sherries and ports into cocktails add tremendous body, depth of flavor and complexity to the drinks.
Vermouth is the most frequently relied upon fortified wine behind American bars. It is flavored with aromatic herbs and spices according to closely guarded trade recipes. Sweet vermouth — often referred to as Italian vermouth — is typically made from Apulia and Moscato di Canelli grapes. After 1-2 years of aging, the wines are blended, filtered and fortified with distilled spirits. Dry (French) vermouth is made from light, thin-skinned Picpoul and Clairette grapes. The wines are aged 2-3 years in oak casks that are exposed to the elements to accelerate maturation. After aging, the wines are infused with botanicals and fortified with spirits.
There are principally three versions of the Manhattan. The namesake version is made with Italian (sweet) vermouth, bourbon or blended whiskey, and a maraschino cherry garnish. The classic proportions are 3 parts whiskey to 1 part vermouth. The Dry Manhattan is made by substituting French (dry) vermouth for sweet, and is garnished with either a lemon twist, or pimento-stuffed green olives. The Perfect Manhattan — or Medium Manhattan — is prepared using about a quarter of an ounce of each type of vermouth, and garnished with a lemon twist. Should a guest request their Manhattan “sweet,” add a splash of maraschino cherry juice.
These days it is all too common for a Manhattan to be made without bitters, which is a pity because it’s a highly recommended ingredient. Bitters add a marvelous aroma and flavor to the cocktail, such that without it the drink seems a bit lost. Before proceeding in earnest making your own bitters, consider working first with one or more of the four franchise players in the bitters world, namely Angostura, Regans’ Orange Bitters #6, Peychaud’s and Fee’s Peach or Mint Bitters.
Two other popular variations on the theme are the Brandy Manhattan and the Southern Comfort Manhattan. The Brandy Manhattan is concocted using sweet vermouth, the Dry Brandy Manhattan with dry vermouth and the Perfect Brandy Manhattan is made with both vermouths. The Southern Comfort Manhattan is prepared using dry vermouth instead of the sweet, this to create a more balanced cocktail.
The classic Rob Roy is the name given to a Manhattan made with Scotch whisky. The Dry Rob Roy is made by substituting dry vermouth for sweet. The Perfect Rob Roy, or Affinity Cocktail, is prepared with about a 1/2 oz. of each type of vermouth and garnished with a lemon twist.
There are several popular variations on the Rob Roy theme, each an excellent method of promoting single malts. The Highland Fling is a super-premium Rob Roy featuring a 12-year old Highland single malt. Another option on the Rob Roy is to replace the sweet vermouth with equal parts of Dubonnet Rouge and tawny port and then adding in a measure of single malt Scotch.
About The Manhattan
The Manhattan’s revival has everything to do with the drink itself. It is about as suave and delectable as a cocktail gets. It’s smooth, aromatic, and has a thoroughly satisfying flavor. Unlike the Martini, which is more of an acquired taste, the Manhattan possesses a nearly universal appeal and don’t require enduring a learning curve to appreciate. While a relatively straightforward concoction, there are a sufficient number of components in the drink to devise genuinely singular and innovative signature Manhattans. Learning how to tweak these various elements is at the heart of the creative process.
While it’s true that few cocktails will transcend the popularity of the Martini, it’s equally true that few cocktails will ever taste better than a well-chilled Manhattan. The choice is yours — follow the crowd, or find soul-satisfying bliss.
- Stirred or Shaken — The decision whether to stir or shake a Manhattan is not as clear-cut as is with the Martini. Traditionally, a cocktail constructed only of an aperitif or fortified wine and a distilled spirit would be stirred gently in the mixing glass until the ingredients have reached serving temperature. As is the case of the Martini, the proper serving temperature for a Manhattan is around 37-38˚F. The basic ingredients are sufficiently close in specific gravity as to not require shaking to ensure that they fully integrate.
But vigorously shaking a Manhattan is gaining acceptance, possibly because the principal ingredient is bourbon, a stalwart and hardy spirit that thrives when shaken. Bourbon’s deep rich color prevents any semblance of “bruising,” an affliction associated with a shaken Martini. Another consideration is that shaking a Manhattan will result in a bit more water going into the cocktail, not a bad thing when working with whiskeys.
- Vermouth — Mastering the Manhattan requires the use of high quality vermouth. As mentioned in the Martini chapter, there are perceptible differences in quality between the various brands of vermouth. While it may be inexpensive, vermouth is a complex aperitif wine, one that is difficult and laborious to make well. Suffice to say, the better the vermouth, the better the resulting Manhattan.
When in doubt, fall back to the time-tested brands, such as Italian Martini & Rossi, Cinzano, Stock, and French Noilly Prat. They are immeasurably better than the rest of the field, and have a marked impact on the quality of the finished drink. Taking shortcuts with a cocktail like the Manhattan invariably nicks the final product.
Another option also now exists. There are a number of finely crafted vermouths being made at American vineyards rocketing up the charts. A leading example is Vya Preferred California Sweet Vermouth made by winemaker Andrew Quady of Madera. It is an impeccable vermouth, a blend of Orange Muscat, French Colombard and Valdepenas varietal wines that are infused with herbs, spices, flowers, and citrus. Port is added to the blend giving the vermouth a velvety texture and beautiful tawny hue, both of which contribute greatly to a Manhattan.
- Aperitif — One of the appeals of the Manhattan, like the Martini, is that it accommodates a great deal of creative latitude. When exploring just how versatile the cocktail is, consider substituting another type of aperitif wine for the vermouth. An excellent jumping off point is using one of the two grand dames of the category, Dubonnet and Lillet. Both brands are available in two styles — rouge and blanc. Ideally suited for use in signature Manhattans, the rouge version is made on a base of premium red wine and infused with a proprietary blend of herbs, spices and peels. The wine is fortified with grape spirits to an elevated strength of 19% alcohol by volume.
Those with adventure in their soul may want to try substituting the vermouth with Pineau des Charentes in their next specialty Manhattan. Pineau des Charentes is a French aperitif made from a blend of unfermented grape must and Cognac brandy. Most varieties of Pineau are crafted from the grapes Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard, with occasional Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Montils. The mixture is aged for at least 18 months in oak barrels. Pineau seems created specifically with the Manhattan in mind. Its natural sweetness is expertly balanced by the acidity and the increased percentage of alcohol.
- Fortified Options — Fortunately for the Manhattan adoring public, there are more fortified wines that can be drafted into service. In fact, the roster of possible contestants includes some of the biggest, most famous names in aperitif wines.
Port is a fortified wine made primarily from red wine grapes cultivated in the Upper Douro Valley district of northern Portugal. Most are shipped from the city of Oporto, located at the mouth of the Douro River. Ruby ports are made from a blend of young wines from different vintages, while tawny port is a blend of older wines, pale in color with a distinctive amber edge.
Port is a sensational replacement for sweet vermouth in a Manhattan. On the whole they have supple, velvety-textured bodies, wafting, fruit-laced bouquets and ideally balanced, flavor laden palates. It is especially well-suited for pairing with whiskeys and brandies. Sherry is another stellar fortified wine tailor-made for use in gourmet Manhattans. It is produced in the district of Jerez de la Frontera, the famed wine-growing region in southern Spain between Cadiz and Seville. They are typically made from Palomino grapes. There are principally two styles of Sherry, Fino, which is dry and delicate, and Oloroso, which is fuller-bodied and semisweet.
Madeira is a celebrated fortified wine often featured as a modifier in specialty Manhattans. While considered a sweet dessert wine, there are dry styles of Madeira as well. Made in Portugal, the wine is blended and aged in Soleras, similar to how Sherries are produced. Madeiras are typically fortified with grape spirits, or brandy.
- Premium Spirits — There are numerous reasons to promote top-shelf Manhattans, not the least of which is the axiom that the better the whiskey, the better the resulting Manhattan.
One of the objectives when devising a signature Manhattan is to present a specific brand of bourbon in a creative vehicle that best enhances its characteristics. For example, the Italian Manhattan does a superb job showcasing Maker’s Mark Bourbon. This small batch whiskey is highly aromatic and an ideal candidate for use in a gourmet cocktail. The recipe substitutes Disaronno Amaretto and several dashes of cherry juice for the sweet vermouth. The nutty almond flavor of the amaretto highlights the smoky, caramel flavors in the whiskey.
Nowhere is it written that you are confined to only using bourbon in your specialty Manhattans. Lacing a whiskey or brandy with a fortified wine is a model for success and it has spawned numerous variations made with an array of different spirits. An early variation of the cocktail is the Prohibition Manhattan. It is made with rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and orange bitters.
- Modifying with Liqueurs — An innovative way to alter the character and personality of a Manhattan is to modify it with a liqueur. Mixology is replete with successful examples.
- Muddling — As generations of Old Fashioned enthusiasts will attest, bourbon and muddled fruit taste sublime. In the pursuit of a genuinely delicious Manhattan, don’t overlook the creative option of muddling fruit such as oranges, lemons, cherries, peaches, apricots and tangerines and adding it to the cocktail. The selected fruit should be placed into an empty mixing glass, muddled, and then the ice and liquid ingredients are added. The bitterness from the pith and the sweetness of the juice make marvelous additions to specialty Manhattans and add greatly to the drink’s production value.
- Garnishing — The garnish on a Manhattan is a stemmed maraschino cherry. When devising a specialty Manhattan however, creative latitude goes with the territory. Make sure that the garnish you choose complements the taste and enhances the appearance of the cocktail. Possibilities include Amarena cherries, brandied cherries, an orange wedge, lemon or orange twist spiral.
Little did the staff at the Manhattan Club realize the revolution that they were fomenting when first they laced rye whiskey with vermouth. More than a century later, mixologists are still following suit and crafting timeless classics by pairing spirits with delicate fortified wines in the form of gourmet Manhattans.
Vive la révolution!