The quest for the ultimate Manhattan
Have you ever had a bad Manhattan? It’s a simple enough cocktail that it ought to be impossible to mess up – whiskey, vermouth, and bitters garnished with a cherry. Unfortunately I’ve had some pretty terrible ones. Last summer I was at a restaurant with my colleague, Rosemary Miller, when she received a Manhattan that was so bad we were convinced it had leftover beer in it. We set about studying our favorite cocktail, learning the ins and outs. What we learned was surprising, even polarizing to some of our readers.
We wanted to study each part of a Manhattan cocktail to see how they would interact with the other ingredients so we made an outline of how we thought our study would go. In reality it ended up almost nothing like our initial outline, and that was completely OK. For instance, where we thought we would be dedicating one section of the study to vermouths, we ended up dedicating three. It’s the ingredient we studied most in-depth, because we found it to be considerably more complicated than we first thought. We ended up with nine sections in total and we could have continued forever on the questions that we raised with each one. As with all things, whatever your preference is you should go with. But as Rosemary and I had very similar preferences in Manhattans we set about to discover what was the absolute best Manhattan for us, using the same basic proportions and techniques and swapping out one ingredient at a time to test how it affected the end result.
SECTIONS ONE & TWO – FINDING THE RIGHT WHISKEY
We began our Manhattan journey with a lineup of whiskeys, both Bourbons and ryes, each with different mash bills and proofs. In our first study we chose Michter’s 10 years Bourbon at 94.4-proof for the age, Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond because it’s a wheater, Michter’s 10 years rye at 92.8-proof for its age, and Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond because it is a standard among Louisville bartenders.
We quickly discovered we liked the spice of rye whiskey in our Manhattans better than the sweetness of Bourbon.
Next we lined up four rye whiskeys – the Michter’s 10 years rye that we had preferred the last time, the Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond rye that is a favorite among local bartenders, Kentucky Peerless rye which is very young at two years old but also higher proof at 107.4, and the Michter’s US-1 Barrel Strength with no age statement but a proof of 109.6.
What we determined was that barrel entry proof and bottling proof play a bigger role than we had initially anticipated. Kentucky Peerless is barreled at 103° and Michter’s at 107°, giving the end product more access to the water soluble wood sugars that lead to greater caramel and vanilla notes.
Though we liked the Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye best the Kentucky Peerless came in second, driving home the point that age isn’t all-important and other factors are able to compensate.
THE IN-DEPTH VERMOUTH STUDY SECTION
After what we thought would be our only vermouth session we quickly realized we would need at least three. We broke up our potential vermouths into French, Italian, and then a runoff between the two.
In my struggle to find four French vermouths at a well-stocked local liquor store I grabbed something that was very close to vermouth – Byrrh Grand Quinquina. It ended up taking our Manhattan game to the next level. We still like the Barolo Chinato Cocchi best out of the strictly vermouth category, but we were also surprised to discover that Martini and Rossi remained a strong contender throughout. There’s a reason it’s on most every back bar.
SHAKEN OR STIRRED: THINGS GO OFF THE RAILS
We had initially intended to look at this part after each of the ingredients, but we received so much feedback from the bartending community we had to change course. Traditional bartender wisdom dictates that you are supposed to stir a cocktail that only contains spirits, like the Manhattan, and shake a cocktail that contains juice,
like a Margarita for instance.
There are two reasons people give for stirring a Manhattan. First, you don’t want to “bruise” the vermouth. Admittedly I never found out exactly what this means, though I did try.
Second, shaking a Manhattan is supposed to make it foamy.
THE BITTER TRUTH
As Albert Schmid put it in his book The Manhattan Cocktail, bitters are the spice cabinet. You can tailor a Manhattan to a drinker’s preference very easily by swapping out the bitters.
We were split in our final result between Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry bitters and the classic offering of Angostura.
Again, there’s a reason why there’s a bottle of Angostura bitters on every back bar across the American nation.
AND A CHERRY ON TOP
Garnishes finish the cocktail, giving it that special touch that tells the imbiber this was crafted by hand just for you. Luxardo is the gold standard, Bada Bing are very nice, but we discovered a new brand that is now our favorite – Jack Rudy Cocktail Company Bourbon Cocktail Cherries.
THE ROSEMARY & MAGGIE MANHATTAN
• 1.5 oz. Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye
• 0.5 oz. Byrrh Grand Quinquina
• 2 dashes Angostura or Woodford Spiced Cherry bitters
• 1 Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Bourbon
Combine rye, vermouth, and bitters in a cocktail glass with ice and stir. Strain with a Hawthorne strainer into a coupe glass. Garnish with a cherry.