First, We Drink Manhattans …

November 10, 2012

The Manhattan! I was brought up believing that the Martini was the pinnacle of cocktail perfection. Now I know the truth. It’s the Manhattan.

True, the Martini is brilliant, and it’s amongst the handful of drinks which I’ll call ‘my favourites’ – all of which are tops in one way or another. But the Manhattan is tops in more ways than one.

It’s sophisticated yet somehow down-to-earth at the same time. It’s delicious. It’s satisfying. It has emotional resonance. It’s incredibly versatile, with endless possible variations. Add to all that the fact that it’s quick and easy to make (and can be readily ordered in any bar with generally good results). Yep, there may be many strong contenders, but the Manhattan IS my favourite cocktail.

People often say that a good cocktail is more than the sum of its parts, but that can be true in different ways. Some work together to bring out the best qualities of the spirits and mixers. Others create a whole new taste. I think the Manhattan does both. The vermouth does wonderful things to the whiskey, letting you taste the distinct qualities of the spirit you have chosen, and then there’s this extra taste – a Manhattanness – which is quite distinct form the tastes of the whiskey, vermouth, or bitters. The quality of the Manhattanness is what really makes a good one for me.

Oh, I’m not the only one to use this word ‘Manhattanness’. Just after writing this, I was flipping through David Wondrich’s ‘Imbibe’ for historical details, only to find him writing “The one-to-two “reverse” ratio here … (is) somewhat deficient in Manhattanness (to coin a word)”. Well, I guess I’m not the only one to hold that opinion.

What did I discover from Wondrich, on the historical front? Well, the Manhattan was probably invented in the 1870s, definitely in New York, and quite likely in the Manhattan club. It was one of the first drinks to use the newly popular vermouth in a stiffer ‘cocktail’. The Martini came later. The most common formulation was equal parts vermouth to whiskey, but that gradually gave way to the more contemporary two parts whiskey to one part vermouth formulation.

When I find a drink I like a lot, I like to drink it a lot. But I also don’t like to drink the same thing over and over again. Happily, the Manhattan lends itself superbly to endless variations. And it’s versatile as hell. Unlike some cocktails which are juggling acts of perfect balance, a Manhattan will absorb a lot of tinkering.

So this post is going to be a bit of an exploration of Manhattan variations.

Here’s my basic template:


2 oz whiskey (Bourbon or Rye)

1 oz sweet vermouth

2 dashes bitters

Stir well with plenty of ice and strain into a chilled martini or coupe glass. Garnish with a cherry or lemon twist.

Minor Variations: Garnish, ice and glass

Cherry and lemon twist are the usual garnishes. I like cherries but don’t always have either fresh or my homemade rum semi-preserved cherries in stock, and I don’t use ‘maraschino’ cherries. Lemon seems like a more delicate touch which goes well with other citrusy or citrus-hinted variations

When I’m drinking at home I always have a Manhattan straight-up – in a chilled martini/coupe without ice. But when I’m out, I usually have it in a rocks glass with ice. I like that too.


My proportion is 2:1, and I like it, but a lot of recipes these days seem to call for 2:0.75.

In ‘Imbibe‘, David Wondrich says that for the first 20 years or so of the Manhattan, the 1:1 ratio was standard and another common variant was 1 part whiskey to 2 parts vermouth. I think the 1:1 is OK, but the ‘Reverse Manhattan’, although certainly a different drink, is better. The ‘modern’ Manhattan is clearly one thing, the ‘reverse’ another, but the ’50/50′ is not sure what it is.

Varying the Spirit

The big choice is Bourbon or Rye. Rye was the old favourite in the Northeast towards the end of the 19th century – the place and time the Manhattan was invented, so it can be seen as the traditionally ‘correct’ version, if you like. I like it a lot (with my Rittenhouse), but Bourbon is just as good really. My three brands – Woodford Reserve, Maker’s Mark and Knob Creek all make great Manhattans. When I have it with Jim Beam in a bar, it tastes great too. It’s a very forgiving drink!

In my opinion, if it’s not made with Whiskey it’s not really a Manhattan – give it another name.

That said, I think a rum ‘Manhattan’ is great, as is a Genever ‘Manhattan’ (New Amsterdam).

A Rob Roy is a Manhattan with Scotch. Blended whiskey is the usual, but I think it tastes much better with a smokey single malt. The Bobby Burns is an excellent variation on the Rob Roy which sees Benedictine added to the mix.

I’ve also tried Manhattans with Jack Daniels (pretty good), Irish (alright) and Canadian (quite poor).


Angostura is the traditional choice for the Manhattan and I like it, but my personal favourite is orange bitters (I use Angostura Orange, as it’s all I have).

I also think Fees Brothers Whiskey-Barrel-Aged Bitters make a great Manhattan with Bourbon, adding a little spice which makes it closer to a Rye Manhattan (for those of us in Rye-deprived countries).

Peychaud’s is also excellent. I was surprised at how good Rhubarb Bitters were (Fees), and love the Fees Black Walnut bitters.

Grapefruit, peach, cranberry and chocolate were fine. Lemon, mint, cherry and celery weren’t.

My next idea: bitters combinations.

Switching out the vermouth

A popular tactic in creating Manhattan twists is to try fancy vermouths or substitute an aperitif wine or appropriate amaro (Italian bitter liqueur). Sadly, there’s not much of that around in Taipei. No Dolin, Noilly Pratt or Carpano Antica Vermouth. No Averna or Punt e Mes.

Perhaps the most well-known vermouth variation would be the ‘Perfect Manhattan’. In cocktail-speak, ‘perfect’ means equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. I don’t know if it’s just that I’m limited to Martini and Rossi Vermouth here, but I don’t really like this one. I even tried all-dry and that was worse.

Bianco (White) Vermouth (discussed in this Jason Wilson column) is a great lesser known cousin of dry and sweet, but much different (the Martini and Rossi one is widely available). It makes a great light Manhattan variation which would be good for beginners. Wilson recommends leaving out the bitters with this one.

Lillet Blanc – a delicious ‘quinquina’ fortified wine with some similarities to vermouth – is also really good. It’s a nice light Manhattan with a definite taste of Manhattanness. (In Taipei, you can buy it at Sundy).

Dubonnet is also a ‘quinquina’ and makes a great Manhattan when substituted for vermouth.

Cynar is a bitter liqueur that I love, but is sadly unavailable in Taipei. It also makes a great Manhattan variation.

Adding Liqueurs

A common practice a hundred years ago was to add a dash or two of a sweet liqueur to a Manhattan (and many other cocktails). The ‘usual seasonings’ were curacao, absinthe and maraschino.

I’ve tried Marie Brizzard Orange Curacao and Grand Marnier (1 tsp) with orange bitters and an orange twist, and I think they both make a nice citrusy Manhattan.

I’ve said before that I really don’t like absinthe, but (in very small doses) it can have a good effect on a cocktail – it smoothes it and gives the taste a little lasting power in the mouth. The same is true in the Manhattan – it went really nicely with my Woodford reserve. (I only use 1/4 tsp).

Maraschino (1/2 tsp) makes for a sharp Manhattan. I wasn’t too thrilled.

Other classic candidates would be Benedictine and Chartreuse, but I haven’t really tried them.

The modern ‘splash a bit in everything’ liqueur is St Germain Elderflower, and a teaspoon or two does make for a very fine Manhattan.

With any of these, you might want to tone down the vermouth a little to compensate for the added sweetness.

More Complicated Variations

There are loads and loads of more involved Manhattan variations around. Here are the ones I’ve tried.

Little Italy

2 oz rye

1/2 oz Cynar

3/4 oz sweet vermouth

cherry garnish

This one is truly excellent. I love Cynar. Here it partly substitutes for the vermouth and for the bitters.


1 1/2 oz rye

1 1/2 oz Dubonnet

1 dash Angostura Bitters

3 dashes orange bitters

3 dashes Cointreau

1 piece lemon peel

1 piece orange peel

Shake and strain.

It’s a while since I tried this one – when I was doing my Dubonnet drinks – but according to my notes it was very good; one of the best Dubonnet cocktails, in fact.


1 1/2 oz Bourbon

3/4 oz Tuaca

2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters

cherry garnish

Tuaca is a vanilla-based liqueur (unavailable in Taiwan), so having this stand in for vermouth is stretching it a bit, and, in fact, I found this one a bit unbalanced. It was interestingly ‘bouncy’ though. ‘Bouncy’ is what I call a drink in which you taste one element and then one quite different one and bounce back and forth between the two. In a good drink you should end up right in the middle. This one didn’t really.

Rochester Cocktail

2 oz rye

1 oz Dubonnet

1/2 oz Licor 43

1/4 oz absinthe

2 dashes Angostura Bitters

lemon twist garnish

Licor 43 is another vanilla liqueur, so I substituted Tuaca, and it worked much better in this one, which turned out very nice. The absinthe worked very well too, and it had definite Manhattanness.

Arts District

2 oz rye

1/2 oz Cynar

1/4 oz Benedictine

grapefruit peel garnish

I thought this one was nice, but with this recipe probably had too much Benedictine and not enough Cynar.

I have recipes for quite a few more Manhattan variations, but many call for ingredients I don’t have, and I’ve run out of rye again (no rye in Taiwan!), but when you think of the different elements that can be varied, it’s quite easy to ad-lib your own. Just think of what variations go with each other and what spirit to use with that.

What are your favourite Manhattan variations?

Next week: … And Then We Drink Some Gin.


10 Responses to “First, We Drink Manhattans …”

  1. Seamus Says:

    Good post. It’s also one of my favorite drinks.

    I agree that the rye isn’t as essential as some say. Lack of easy access to rye has meant I’ve drunk far more Bourbon Manhattans than Rye Manhattans. Both taste fine to me. I prefer rye if it’s available. However, good bourbon makes a better Manhattan than average rye.

    I disagree with you though on the maraschino. To my mind that’s one of the best modifications. I never really ask for it when I’m out but at home I’ll often make it that way.

    Now for Daiquiris I will ask for the dash of maraschino even when I’m out – assuming they have it of course.

  2. theboolion Says:

    Yep, I think maraschino’s just not really my thing.

    And I completely agree on Rye/Bourbon – I’d drink rye more if I had it. David Wondrich argues that generally 100-proof spirit will taste better in a Manhattan, whether Bourbon or Rye, than a lower proof spirit of the other, given similar qualities. Or, on other words, that the choice of 50% or 40% is more important than the choice of Bourbon or Rye.

  3. Alicia Says:

    What a great compilation of Manhattan varieties! This looks like you must have had a lot of fun testing them out. I have made a Fig Manhattan, subbing some of the sweet vermouth with a dried fig infused bourbon. It was very nice. I just made manhattans last night with chamomile infused bourbon, and I have an exciting aging process going on right now with some rye… And now we wait!

  4. putneyfarm Says:

    Great post. While not as big of fans of manhattans we enjoy playing with the bitters for new flavors…chocolate mole bitter are a current fave…

  5. I would never entertain a rye Manhattan. A Woodford or Black Maple Hill Manhattan would be my choice—light on bitters. Also, my feeling is why dump a rum infused cherry on whiskey? An odd call, IMHO. I’m with Seamus re: maraschino—such a classic garnish. That, or a lemon twist. Best recipe for a modified maraschino is to buy a jar, dump half the liquid and back fill with your favorite bourbon. The cherries keep firm and well infused as opposed to a standard preserved fruit.

    • theboolion Says:

      Thanks for your reply. The Woodford is nice, but I haven’t tried the Black Maple. If you haven’t had a good rye Manhattan, I recommend trying the Rittenhouse Bonded. You need a nice 100-proof liquor. The rum cherry works – I undertand your concern and why you’d think Bourbon cherries would work better – but the rum ones work. The best I’ve tried were a blend of three spirits and some liqueur (I don’t remember the details). But really, those Maraschino cherries – I don’t care for them at all. Seamus was referring to Maraschino liqueur whch is quite a different taste fromn those modern cherries. Anyway, the main reason I did my cherries with rum was that I had some nice high-proof rum, but no high-proof Bourbon.

  6. Jens-Christian Jensen Says:

    Which Canadian did you use? Canadian Club was used in Manhattans during prohibition and has remained a favorite many places in the US ever since (at least untill the Rye renaissance of the last few years). I still prefer it to most Ryes. Crown Royal however, gives a strange aftertaste.

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