The Joy of Mixology — The History of the Manhattan

How to properly make a Manhattan.
How to properly make a Manhattan.

With summer quickly approaching and warm weather now here, I eagerly picked up a copy of The Joy of Mixology: The Consummate Guide to the Bartender’s Craft. The book came highly recommended by a few readers and despite its lack of pictures, is packed with fascinating insights.

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The History of the Manhattan

The History of the Manhattan is lost to us, but we do have some clues as to its origin, mostly uncovered by the ardent efforts of cocktail historian William Grimes, who detailed a few theories in his 2001 edition of Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail. Dismissing as unsubstantiated the theory that the drink was created for a banquet thrown at the Manhattan Club in 1874 to celebrate an electoral success for Governor Samuel Tilden, Grimes says that the club’s records indicate that the drink was, in fact, invented there, but no dates were noted. He also says that a certain William Mullhall, who tended bar in New York in the 1890s, claimed that the drink was created by a Broadway saloonkeeper named Black. We’ll never know for sure, but without doubt this cocktail, with its simple formula and complex delivery, was a direct result of vermouth’s increasing popularity with bartenders in the late 1800s. It could-as were many other cocktails and mixed drinks-have been created by more than one person, at around the same time: Bottles of Italian vermouth were new at the bar; cocktailians experimented with them.

The recipe that appears in Jerry Thomas’s The Bar-Tender’s Guide, or How to Mix All Kinds of Plain and Fancy Drinks (1887) calls for one pony of rye whiskey, a wine glass of vermouth, two dashes of curaco or maraschino, and three dashes of Boker’s bitters (now unavailable); the Manhattan Club’s recipe indicates that its bartenders used amounts of whiskey and vermouth, with some orange bitters. By 1906, though, Louis Muckenstrum, author of Louis’s Mixed Drinks with Hints for the Care and Service of Wines, was calling for twice as much whiskey as vermouth, as well as dashes of curaco, Angostura, and orange bitters—a drink that’s not too far removed from the Manhattan we serve today.

The “drying” of the Martini that occurred in the 1940s almost happened to the Manhattan in the 1990s, and some untrained bartenders out there still think that the drink should be made with just a dash or two of vermouth. But to a large extent, cocktail drinkers know that the vermouth should make up at least 1/4 of the drink, and it usually takes Muckenstrum’s base proportion to properly balance this cocktail. However, as with all drinks made with a whiskey base, it’s imperative to alter the ratios according to the whiskey you use to construct the Manhattan.

Although straight rye whiskey was the original spirit to grace the glass of Manhattan quaffers, I far prefer to use bourbon; but when it comes to which bottling to choose, I fluctuate according to my mood. For the sake of thrift, the Evan Williams seven-year old is an excellent choice if you use about twice as much whiskey as vermouth. My other two favorite brands, selected when I’m feeling a little more flush, are Maker’s Mark and Wild Turkey 101 proof, but with these it’s important to watch how you pour. Maker’s, a gentle soul, needs only just under 1/3 its volume of vermouth to achieve good balance, whereas the far spicier palate of the Wild Turkey requires just a little less than 1 1/2 parts vermouth to two parts whiskey.

As for bitters, Angostura is the standard way to go here, but Peychaud’s and orange bitters both work well in this drink. If you go the Peychaud route, you will notice a marked difference in your Manhattan—it works for some people, though not everybody. I make my Manhattans this way occasionally; more often than not, though, I enjoy the fruity-spicy notes of orange bitters in this drink. Most important, however, is that there must be bitters of some kind in a Manhattan. Unless, of course, a customer requests that you leave them out.

I stick with two brands of vermouth: Martini & Rossi and Noilly Prat. You’ll need a tad more vermouth if using the former; the latter is the more robust bottling.

I hope, after digesting all the variables discussed here, you have some idea of why I think that the Manhattan is the best cocktail on earth. It’s so simple, but it’s so darned complicated. You should take the construction of this drink as a challenge.

The Joy of Mixology is a joy and full of fascinating information on the bartender’s craft.