Monday, February 16, 2009

Guest Post: The Manhattan: an unbastardized classic

Greetings food lovers. Despite some misgivings, our interpid blogatrix has permitted me to join you once again. Today I will talk about an oft-forgotten classic cocktail: the Manhattan.

History and Tradition

Cocktails are a delightfully American phenomenon. I will not deny for a moment that the Martini is their King. However, the Manhattan is a fascinating and delicious entity, and I see no reason not to give it its due. Elvis might be the King, but that is no reason to ignore David Bowie.

The Manhattan's strength lies in its subtlety. While the Martini rules because it takes no prisoners (Step One: chill gin, Step Two: dispense justice), the Manhattan is consistently interesting (Hello, I contain a maraschino cherry and Angostura bitters; tell me what you think about the Symphony's new bassonist.). I hope you'll take the time to try one out. It probably doesn't need to be as complicated as I'm making it here, but it's a freaking cocktail for-crying-out-loud, how else am I supposed to make a full blog post?

I'm calling the Manhattan an unbastardized classic because there is only one Manhattan. Sure, those fools in Wisconsin mix theirs with brandy, but throughout the civilized world, the drink is made one way. The once-noble Martini label has been consistently subverted throughout the years. Beginning in the '60s with Mr. Bond James Bond and his vodka-fueled heresies, the Martini's image and name have been attached to all sorts of Kool-Aid-with-booze monstrosities aimed at getting young women drunk without subjecting them to something so horrible as tasting the alcohol that will fuel the night's bad decisions. All the while, the Manhattan has remained a solid companion to the drinking classes. Like a true artist, it has plugged away at its purpose; the fanfare of the latest liqueur-fueled trends are no seduction to its consistent message. Like Greg Maddux, it will never throw 100 MPH, but it will be one of the best every time it suits up.


To make my preferred Manhattan, you'll need the following:

Stemmed Glass - Essential for any chilled cocktail. The stem lets you hold the drink without letting heat from your fingers warm the drink.

Boston Shaker - My preferred cocktail shaker. Easier to use than a capped shaker and it lets you control the amount of ice chips that slip into the drink.

Ice - It's cold y'all

Bourbon - Use a straightforward American bourbon. Jim Beam is cheap and tasty. There are rules about naming bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, etc.; any of them will do, but you want a corn whiskey with a sweet undertone and ABSOLUTELY NO SOUTHERN COMFORT

Sweet Vermouth

Maraschino Cherry

Angostura Bitters - Absolutely critical, and occasionally a dealbreaker. The bitters round the drink out; they give it character. Some people hate bitters. It's their loss, but that's the way it goes.


1) Put your glass into the freezer -- Jacques Pepin says that the first thing he does when he walks into his kitchen is to put a pot of water on the stove. The idea is that any meal will eventually incorporate some boiling water, so you might as well get that going right away. This is the same rule -- just applied to the boozing arts. Any batch of cocktails will include at least one that is chilled, and a chilled glass is essential. If you have decent (read: thin) stemware, it will only take a few minutes for the glass to chill sufficiently. If your freezer is full, put some ice in the glass and let it set for about ten minutes.

2) Pour all the liquids into the metal part of the shaker.

Proportions per drink:
3 oz Bourbon
1 oz Sweet Vermouth
2 dashes Bitters
(optional) 1 dash of grenadine from the Maraschino Cherry jar (if nothing else, slowly using the juice in the cherry jar makes it easier to get at the cherries on the bottom)
4 ice cubes (add another cube or two if doubling the recipe)

Notes: This is why a Boston Shaker is so useful. If you're not a boozing pro -- using bottle pourers and whatnot -- then you can measure out your ingredients without either dirtying another dish (like a tumbler) or letting your guests know that you need to measure things out. Just use the glass part of the shaker and pour.

3) Shake, Shake, Shake senora. Shake it all the time

Notes: I try to use what's called the "Hard Shake." Its not the easiest thing in the world, and the Manhattan isn't really the best drink to take advantage of what the technique can do, but it's good practice. The goal -- as I see it -- is to give a third dimension to the drink. A Hard Shake adds a nice layer of foam to the top, and that makes things interesting.

4) Pour into nicely chilled glass. Add 1 Cherry.

Notes: There are a number of credible cocktail theorists arguing that proper cocktails are made in large doses and then savored. I must confess some mixed feelings on this point. On hand, a seriously-sized serving of alcohol is necessary and proper in these troubling times. Yet, if we are to have cold drinks, how are we supposed to slowly sip large portions?

It is quite the paradox, and I only see two solutions. The simple solution is to mix, as needed, two small drinks. I don't like this answer because once I've sat down with a beverage, I'm not exactly inclined to get back up. In my mind, preferable plan is to live with a warming drink. Because the Manhattan has a couple of interesting flavors, the intensities will vary with the temperature. While the bitters start out quite prominently, they recede over time as the drink warms and the vermouth comes into its own. Start cold. Deal with it.

I hope none of you resolve this issue by slamming back your fine cocktail like some tequila shot ordered mid-bad-date.

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