In previous posts, I have waxed upon such cocktails as the Sazerac, the Old Fashioned–these two are similar enough to be almost interchangeable, and both argue the place of the “original” cocktail, the Sazerac being a more localized choice until recent years–and the Martini. I would like to speak of another cocktail, a classic, one that forms a cornerstone of the compendium.
Although the Manhattan had its genesis in the 19th century, it reached its zenith during the time of Prohibition, as did most cocktails, their very illegality perhaps being an inspiration.
It has always had an American whiskey as its origin, most commonly Rye (the whiskey of the American northeast, composed of over 50% rye grain, as opposed to bourbon, which is composed of over 50% corn (the xenophobe inherent in us all would like me to declare that ALL bourbon must be made within the boundaries of the state of Kentucky–just as all Champagne is made within its own particular regions of France, but I have sampled utterly delightful Bourbons made in California and Texas, and so must admit to a newfound embracement of geography as far as that particular whiskey is concerned, though I stick to my guns as far as Champagne is concerned. Cavas, proseccos, and American sparkling wines can be magnificent–and even a better choice than a common Champagne as an everyday beverage–but if the wine isn’t bottled and fermented within a specific region of northeast France, it just ain’t Champagne.) But I’ve managed to get off topic.
A Manhattan is named for the most famous borough of New York City, arguably the most famous island in America, if not the world. (Maybe Britain’s better known, and I’m sure the Australians would argue in their favour. As a California native, I favour Catalina as far from the California coast as Manhattan is long.) But Manhattan, a bargain bought for a bundle of beads, will forever hold, apocryphally, the world’s heart as the island that is the heart of America.
How ironic, then, that the height of the Manhattan’s popularity occurred during Prohibition, when the cocktail was made from Canadian Whisky (note the absence of the e) which is a close cousin to rye; when Manhattans were made from illegally sourced whiskeys, such palliatives as sweet vermouth (also smuggled) and bitters became an ever more important component to the cocktail.
Cocktails reached their nadir during the late 60s and 70s, as Julia’s Gallic influence reached the nation (though she was always a fan of a not particularly dry Martini) and the rise of the American wine market, California wines outjudging French in the ME decade.
Today, an authentic Manhattan is composed of Rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters, garnished with a Maraschino cherry. My own particular recipe is composed of 3 oz whiskey, 1 oz sweet vermouth (I prefer Martini & Rossi Rosso–whenever I called out that name, it made Myrtle crazy)
and a generous dash of bitters. I can’t even with the bitters tonight: Angostura or Peychaud’s are easiest to find, but specialty stores will give you a rainbow assortment that will subtly (or gaudishly) affect the flavour of the Manhattan. I prefer Luxardo cherries to the traditional Maraschino–they are pre Red 40, and flavoured with Maraschino liqueur–and taste less like plastic. They don’t come with stems, though, so you can’t enjoy the tongue tying experience Audrey Horne had in Twin Peaks.
Today Manhattans are made with Bourbon as often as they are Rye Whiskey (note the “e”) or Canadian Whisky. I have to admit that I prefer Bourbon to Rye in a Manhattan. There’s something about Rye in a Manhattan that reminds me of Ruth Gordon’s Academy Award winning performance of Minnie Castavet in Rosemary’s Baby (set in the iconic and infamous Dakota Building on Manhattan Island) in that it’s what I’d imagine Tannis root would taste like with its chalky aftertaste, a sensation absent in a Sazerac or an Old Fashioned. I know that many cocktail enthusiasts would recoil at these words, but I must remain true to who I am. (I also think that ABBA is the world’s best rock band, by the way. I may have said that before.)
Whether you choose to use Rye or Bourbon as your source whiskey for a Manhattan, it can be varied with other liquors. (There is, in fact, a cocktail known as a Dry Manhattan, which is made with dry vermouth instead of sweet, and is garnished with a twist–or in the most extreme of homes, a Pimento Stuffed Olive!!) There is also the Rob Roy, where Scotch is substituted for American whiskey, and bitters are usually eliminated. One of my favourite variations (which I may have invented–I’ve never seen it in a recipe or bothered to research it) is what I’d like to call a Dublin: substitute Jameson’s for the American Whiskey and use Lavender Bitters (no other kind is acceptable) instead of Angostura/Creole.
Isn’t it fun to speak of cocktails? Whether it’s how you choose to begin the morning or end the day, cocktails are a quintessential and imperative part of the American day. Wine and beer can be made anywhere in the world, and we Americans have learned from the origin of the beverage, and often improved upon it.
What do you think, Dear Reader? Do you agree with my assessment of the cocktail? Are you offended by my opinions? Please respond… I will reply…