Manhattan expedition

Two barflys go in search of the perfect classic cocktail in this iconic part of New York
By Liza Weisstuch
Few are the foods and drinks that bear the simultaneous honour and burden of capturing an entire city, its mood and energy, its essence and character, in a sensory blitz of smells, tastes, textures and appearance. We can start with the obvious, like the hamburger, hearty, assured and unyielding; Peking duck, piquant and mysterious; and Yorkshire pudding, a comfort food, which to eat, for many, is like coming home.

And then there is the Manhattan, a marriage of rye whiskey and vermouth spiced up with bitters. As myth has it, it was created in something of a bit of an improvisational whim out of a high-pressure fix.

It was 1874 and Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill’s socialite mother, was hosting a soiree at the swanky Manhattan Club to celebrate the election of a new mayor. She needed a signature drink, and this harmonic blend was the mixture the barkeep invented.

To this day, however, the Manhattan, at least to this writer, who grew up in an outer borough, manages to capture the rush and exuberance, style and classy intensity of the city, from its refined dining rooms to its gritty alleys. With that in mind, I embarked on a pursuit to imbibe Manhattans throughout Manhattan. That mission was quickly modified, or maybe it’s better to say broadened to include a few drinks in Brooklyn. As a logical consequence given the task at hand, that meant sampling a few different versions of the classic cocktail. After all, since its legendary inception into the cocktail cannon, it’s been appropriated in various ways since the early 1910s by bartenders who want to express their territorial pride.

This is not a task to be tackled alone. My partner in crime was none other than Tonya “LeNell” Smothers, the Alabama-born, long time New York-based whiskey aficionado. Her eponymous spirits boutique in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a veritable Shangri-La for wine and spirits lovers, shuttered in February and an institution devoutly to be missed.

"The Manhattan manages to capture the rush and exuberance of the city"

LeNell sauntered into Jack the Horse, a cozy Brooklyn Heights tavern where we commenced the night’s pursuit, sporting a long tweed coat fastened with oversized wood buttons. A tattoo of a vine-like plant could be seen creeping up the side of her neck, behind her ear. A wide-brimmed, peacock feather-accented black hat that looked like it could have been filched from Mae West’s closet concealed a newly shorn mohawk. She settled into her bar stool and greeted Maxwell Britten, then the bartender, who she knows from New York’s tightly-knit cocktail community.With his slicked back hair and full length white apron, he had the appearance of a scientist as he stood at the wooden bar, strewn with an array of glass bottles capped with droppers or dashers, each containing tinctures, bitters or fresh juices. When we told him of our mission, he recommended Brooklyn Heights.The drink he created is a riff on the Brooklyn, which dates back to the 1910s and was itself a riff on the Manhattan. The Brooklyn is tough to come by these days, since a primary ingredient, Amer Picon, a bitter-orange French cordial, is no longer imported into the U.S.A. So Max ad-libs. The original is built on a foundation of rye and sweet vermouth and finished with a dash of Amer Picon and maraschino liqueur. Max explained that in addition to swapping out the Amer Picon, he uses Luxardo Amaro Abano, which has a significant spice quotient –cinnamon, clove and pepper – not found in standard maraschino. He measures each component with jiggers, adds a few dashes of Regan’s Orange Bitters and a spritz of Campari and voila! A new drink is born. He mixed up two, stirring expertly with dense cubes of ice, every flick of the wrist altering the drink’s temperature. Conforming to the scientist role for which he looks dressed, he dipped a small thermometer into the mixing glass.

The Brooklyn Heights has the makings of an instant classic. Of course, it has a resonance of a Manhattan, but with the addition of the Luxardo’s strong spices, it has its own distinct character, a river of difference, if you will, from the original. Max said it’s probably more of a digestif than an apéritif, but given that neither of us had eaten dinner, we order some food off the tavern’s seasonal menu. Max continued to hold forth, noting how the neighbourhood-based drinks trend has exploded. The last five years have seen the Greenpoint (with Chartreuse), the Red Hook (with Punt e Mes and maraschino) and Little Italy (with Cynar.) LeNell decided it was time for another drink, a dry Manhattan with whiskey barrel bitters, referring to a small batch bitters made by Fee Brothers, a boutique company in upstate New York.

“I usually like my whiskies wet. I never order a dry Manhattan – nobody does any more, but I see them all the time in old cocktail books.” Max whisked around, reached for the dry vermouth and asked if she’d like a twist. Yes, she nodded. He rubbed the oil from the lemon peel deftly around the glass and slid the glistening drink across the wood bar.

Realising how long it’d been since I’d had a dry Manhattan, I ordered the same and it was something of a revelation. Though accustomed to perfect Manhattans – mixed with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth –this was a cleaner drink, more austere.

Nonetheless, it was nearing nine o’clock and time for us to hit the town. We took the subway to midtown for a visit to Bill’s Gay Nineties, a saloon that opened during Prohibition and operated as an actual speakeasy. It stood then as a shrine to the giddily liquor-drenched 1890s. Today, the wall that once kept it shielded from 54th Street has been replaced by windows, and instead of fedoras, the patrons wear baseball caps. The walls at Bill’s are festooned with images of old-school sports legends – boxers and sluggers – and posters for old shows, especially Ziegfield Follies productions, (not least because Bill Hardy, who opened the joint in 1924, was married to a Ziegfield girl).

The dark panelled bar wears its age well. The air is thick with nostalgia, best captured by the jaunty piano player who rolls off show tunes and ragtime chestnuts throughout the night. These sights and sounds are vivid reminders of a bygone era, but perhaps in an age where elite bartenders take the temperature of drinks before they serve them, the most potent signals of authenticity here are the drinks. They’re composed with a refreshingly unfussy confidence reminiscent of how impromptu things really were in the days when the flappers ruled. The dignified bartender introduced himself as Gerard (“pronounced the French way”) and proceeded to make the Manhattan LeNell requests, free-pouring the Canadian Club and sweet vermouth. There are no bitters on hand. For me, Gerard has something else in mind. He deftly mixes up a whiskey sour, which is a disconcerting yellow hue, and pushes it toward me. “Try it, you’re going to like it,” he urges.

"The air is thick with nostalgia, best captured by the jaunty piano player who rolls off show tunes and ragtime chestnuts throughout the night"

Lighting out for the night’s third stop, we hop into a cab toward Chinatown. A quick turn off the Bowery is Broome Street, where a slate sandwich board on the sidewalk that reads “The Randolph at Broome” in uneven script is the only indication that there’s any kind of commerce on this dark stretch of the street. The Randolph opened in 2008 and quickly became popular among New York’s elite bartending set.

It’s a spacious, sweeping warehouse-like place, but has the appearance of having been around for decades. The expansive wooden bar looks as if it’s seen its share of stilettos and spilled drinks, and there are punk rock signifiers scattered about. Nevertheless, there’s an underlying classic decorum. The bartenders wear vests and the shakers, strainers and spoons that line the wooden shelves have a newly polished gleam. Jason Littrell, the exception to the uniform rule in a baggy hooded sweatshirt, is a perfect person to wrap up the expedition – and not just because he welcomes us with “Who’s thirsty? I can fix that!” He’s equally enthused to stir up a pitch-perfect Manhattan as he is to knock together an improvisational riff.

He swivels around and gives us each a drink. There’s a subtle sense of pomp and ceremony, as this is the first time anyone’s tried this as-yet-unnamed tipple: two parts Rittenhouse, one part Antica Formula vermouth, and dashes of three different bitters, Angostura, Regan’s Orange, and Peychaud’s. It’s presented on the rocks in a glass that’s been rinsed with Cynar, an bitter Italian apéritif made with artichokes. It’s as aromatic as an herb shop, (which inspires me to dub it “The Queens”).

Jason, however, says names can take time, which is only to be expected if a drink is to take its place in history.