Back in 2003 I stopped overnight in Manhattan, Kansas and it was a time I won’t soon forget. You know how they say Kansas is flatter than a pancake? It’s true and some of the most interesting features of that state are located in holes in the ground that fail to live up to the size of their bubbles-in-your-pancakes counterparts. The city of Manhattan is in one of those holes.
Around this time last year I tried my first Manhattan of the beverage variety and it quickly became my cocktail of choice. Unfortunately I’m still learning to discern where I can and can’t expect to order one and like what I get – sometimes it’s simply better to order something more predictable, even if it is considered one of this planet’s more canonical cocktails. During some recent travels I stopped at a bar/grill -type establishment in the Ronald Reagan International Airport in Washington, D.C. (DCA) and ordered one, yet somehow for the second time in a month was instead served with none other than a glass of Canadian whiskey on the rocks, which is fairly far from getting it right. On both occasions I got the impression that the line of thinking was something like “give him twice the alcohol and he can’t complain, right?” In the week preceding I had also been served a couple of drinks that were foaming, indicating I was the recipient of something containing sour mix, which is not following the recipe either.
The basic prescription is 2 parts whiskey (usually bourbon or rye but presumably because of scarcity during prohibition sometimes Canadian), 1 part sweet vermouth and a couple dashes of bitters, oft accompanied by orange peel and/or maraschino cherries. Even if you skip the fruit, it needs the vermouth and bitters to be in the right ballpark. Vermouth is generally all the same outside shades of quality, but bitters come in an array of varieties and even the famous Angostura brand comes in both citrus and aromatic kinds, the latter being defined by gentian, the key ingredient in Moxie, which is without question one of my favorite non-adult beverages. I sometimes vary the amount of vermouth, even going so far as to make the proportions equal on occasion, but I always put in at least half to the amount of whiskey and some bitters.
If you’re a bartender and someone asks you for a drink that you’re not sure how to make, ask them to remind you what they’re looking for or if that’s too embarrassing, leverage the benefits of this information age and look it up – if you don’t have all the ingredients, you should ask them to choose something else instead of compromising. If you’re running an establishment that furnishes beverages of the adult variety, I encourage you to provide your bartenders with reference materials of some sort so they can avoid embarrassing you both. If you like to make cocktails at home or entertain your friends and aren’t familiar with this concoction, I suggest you give this classic a try and develop your own protocol – I’ll happily give yours a review.