A drink not to mess with

In the first of a new series on great whisky cocktails, Ian Wisniewski looks at The Manhattan
By Ian Wisniewski
Unlike so many ornate, fruity cocktails that are mere fashion accessories for the cocktail brigade, no one toys with a Manhattan. It's way beyond that, being a quintessential whisky cocktail with genuine pedigree and a sophisticated flavour.

The Manhattan's origins span various options, though a favourite among cocktail archivists stipulates New York, in 1874. That's when Lady Randolph Churchill (nee Jenny Jerome, a Manhattan socialite, who subsequently gave birth to Sir Winston Churchill), hosted a banquet to celebrate the election of Samuel Tilden as governor of New York.

As this was definitely a major event, an exciting new cocktail was required to provide a victory toast. And as the club's bartenders were known for their creativity, that wasn't going to be a problem.

One bartender's experiments, with rye whisky, red vermouth and a dash of orange bitters, provided a contender. But it all depended on the governor's verdict. He loved it! The bartender (history doesn't record the individual's name) made plenty more, so that all the guests could enjoy it, and named this cocktail after the Manhattan Club.

The club was a cool place for the elite to hang out, which meant the bartenders catered to a discerning crowd. This also ensured that the club was the source of various new cocktails, though only the Manhattan transcended its original era, and location, to become an international classic.

Created using rye whiskey, the Manhattan has also been adopted by bourbon, and the success of this cocktail rests on balancing the whiskey with the vermouth (the usual proportions being 2:1).

Needless to say, the individuality of each style of whiskey, not to mention each brand, is an important factor. Meanwhile, Angostura Bitters has long since replaced Orange Bitters (which was a popular ingredient in various cocktails until its demise in the 1950s).

How the ingredients are combined has significant ramifications for the resulting flavour, and can be make or break for the Manhattan.

The current norm is stirring ingredients over ice in a mixing glass. In the process of cooling the ingredients, meltage from the ice creates minimal dilution, with a certain degree of water required to help integrate the flavours.

Using a cocktail shaker with ice was the usual preparation method until the mid-20th century. Although shaking achieves greater coldness more rapidly, this also results in more ice melting (compared to stirring), and an excessive degree of dilution which can easily unbalance the drink.

It was inevitable that such a popular cocktail would evolve, with the 'dry Manhattan' using dry white vermouth instead of sweet red, emerging in the 1920s. Another option soon followed, with the 'perfect Manhattan' amalgamating the original and dry versions, using equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, but omitting any bitters. Consequently, with three variations on the theme, the Manhattan catered for every preference.

Choosing a vermouth such as Martini & Rossi means a more subtle influence in the resulting cocktail, compared to the richer flavours of Noilly Prat (a rarity among vermouths, being oak-aged). Similarly, some Manhattan recipes add a dash of juice from a jar of maraschino cherries, with another preference being to squeeze a few drops from the actual cherry into the drink, adding luscious sweetness.

Amartini glass is the usual, and most elegant choice of glassware. Arecent trend is to initially 'rinse' the glass with a dash of Angostura Bitters, discarding any residual liquid, before pouring in the combined whiskey and vermouth. As this method avoids integrating the Angostura Bitters within the recipe, the flavour shows more distinctly in the finish.

If a Manhattan is preferred on the rocks it's served in a tumbler, though adding rocks raises a technical issue. Having ice in the glass keeps the cocktail colder for longer, but also means greater meltage, and so dilution, during the course of the drink. This in turn sees a greater change in the alcoholic strength, and as alcoholic strength determines the flavour profile, a Manhattan on the rocks reveals a greater range of flavours en route to the final sip. Whether this is advantageous, compared to having a flavour that remains consistent with each sip, depends on personal preference.

The finishing touch for a Manhattan is garnishing with a maraschino cherry, while a dry Manhattan receives a lemon twist. A perfect Manhattan is not traditionally garnished, but if you're the customer, or acting as your own bartender, then it's entirely up to you.