Drink of the Week: The Manhattan

By Paul Nelson

Christians have the Bible. Aspiring singers have The Great American Songbook. Bartenders have a cluster of drinks that never go out of style. Being able to offer one effortlessly and quickly demonstrates that you’ve done your homework. You can do more than just pour Coca Cola and Jack Daniels into a glass over ice. There’s nothing wrong with a Jack and Coke, mind you, but some occasions call for a bit of class, a bit of savoir faire.

Enter the Manhattan. Simple. Classy. Timeless.

  • 2 oz whiskey
  • .25 – 1 oz sweet (red) vermouth
  • 1-2 dashes bitters

Shake the ingredients together or stir over ice. I like to serve it with a sour cherry as a garnish, or a thin slice of lemon resting at the bottom of the glass. Vary the amount of sweet vermouth according to your tastes. I prefer a good dose of vermouth in my Manhattans, others prefer a lighter touch.

The key to this drink’s versatility is the quality and variety of ingredients you choose.

Bitters are a botanical, a concoction based on herbal ingredients and often (but not always) alcoholic.  A broad variety of liquors qualify as botanicals, and bitters are a specific subset. The best known brand is Angostura and you can find a bottle of Angostura bitters in any decent liquor store or even grocery store liquor section. Another good one to have on hand is Peychaud’s, which is more specifically associated with another classy cocktail – the Sazerac (we’ll cover that soon). There are also a variety of boutique bitters you might stumble upon.

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Sweet vermouth is an area for greater experimentation. Vermouths are fortified wines – additional spirits have been added to increase the alcohol content and various herbs are also infused into the liquor. Specifically, vermouths are known as aperitif wines, intended to be enjoyed before a meal so that their flavors stimulate the appetite. Sweet vermouth is often red in color, distinguishing it from dry vermouth which is decidedly less sweet and usually clear in color. Probably the most common (and inexpensive) vermouth is Martini & Rossi. This is a great go-to vermouth, but there are plenty of other options that will cost you a little more but offer a bit more complexity. Right now I’m enjoying a bottle of Noilly Prat that is quite nice. Dolin is another great brand. Pricier, but if you have a well-developed palette you might enjoy experimenting.

Finally, the whiskey. You can experiment the most here, as whiskey is enjoying a surge in popular interest that has prompted a variety of new brands and styles. There are oodles of whiskeys to choose from, and they come from all over the world. Their different names indicate the primary ingredient (at least 51%) – corn, barley, rye, wheat, and other variations of these basics. Jack Daniels is a well known, inexpensive whiskey in America. If you want to try something more nuanced, I suggest Bulleit Bourbon (or Rye). Maker’s Mark can’t be forgotten either. These are all relatively affordable options, and can be found in most liquor & grocery stores as well as Costco.

This is easier to make than an Old Fashioned or a Sazerac, but still very enjoyable (assuming you like whiskey), and widely known. Legend claims this drink is nearly 150 years old. I trust the age won’t keep you from enjoying it!

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