Friday, November 4, 2011

XXQC - The Manhattan

As fall has now crept its way around the corner here in the midwest, it seems like the perfect opportunity to take a look at perhaps my favorite cocktail to pair with the brisk winds and sun-starved days of autumn.  While a 'simple yet delightful mixture of spirit, vermouth, and bitters' can obviously be used to characterize a number of cocktails from the 1800s...the blend of spicy, peppery rye whiskey along with the full-bodied botanicals of sweet vermouth, all brought into harmony with the addition of a richly aromatic and herbaceous kick of Angostura bitters paves the road to only one cocktail, the Manhattan...a quintessential cocktail from any perspective.

As with most things of cocktail lore, there is some debate as to the history of the Manhattan.  At the same time however, there is a strong consensus that the cocktail was originally conceived during the tail end of 1874 at a dinner to honor the then recently elected governor of New York, Samuel J. Tilden.  The location...New York's 'Manhattan Club', of course.  And in its first official iteration according to the Club, the cocktail consisted of equal parts of whiskey and sweet vermouth, with a dash of orange bitters.  With that said, this is cocktail history from over 130 years ago, and hence it should come as no surprise that another version of the Manhattan's origin exists.  I first came across this less well known twist in an '07 column of the San Francisco Chronicle, penned by the acclaimed Gary Regan.  According to his research, a more legitimate contemplation of the Manhattan's origination may lie in a story from an early 1920's book, Valentine's Manual of New York.  In it, William F. Mulhall, a bartender at New York's Hoffman House during the 1880s, suggested that the cocktail was created in the 1860s 'by a man named Black who kept a place 10 doors below Houston Street on Broadway'.  Given that this citation came from a bartender of the period, Regan believes it holds significant which I can't necessarily disagree.  

The ratio of whiskey to sweet vermouth, as typically prepared these days, ranges from 2 - 4:1, much like that of the Martini...and as most things, is a matter of preference.  The proportions may also be adjusted depending on the particular type of whiskey or vermouth in a proposed combination.  While rye whiskey was the originally intended spirit for the Manhattan, many a bar may fashion their own versions with a bourbon whiskey.  This is absolutely acceptable, and was in fact the route I chose for my maiden Manhattan voyage.  Nevertheless, I have definitely come to appreciate the potentially overbearing sweetness that can accompany this duo.  When paired with the existing sweet overtones of the vermouth, a bourbon with a mash bill (grain recipe) high in corn and/or wheat is often too one dimensional for my palate when compared to the drier notes associated with a rye whiskey, or even rye-heavy bourbon (ie. Wild Turkey, Bulleit, etc).  Indeed, a Canadian blended whisky, typically packing quite the rye punch, can substitute with a more balanced result when lacking a proper rye whiskey.  In terms of the sweet vermouth, there are many from which to choose, each offering subtle differences in the proportions and/or selections of herbs, fruits, and botanicals which comprise their proprietary recipes.  Simply put, two Manhattans made with equal proportions of two different brands of vermouths can taste quite unique.  When mixing up my own Manhattan, generally speaking, my personal preference is a high proof rye whiskey, Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, and a few dashes of Angostura bitters.  As for the garnish, some prefer the less common lemon twist, yet I find a homemade bourbon-soaked or Luxardo maraschino cherry to be the superior route.  And as I've critiqued in the past, if the only cherries in your possession are those more commonly suited atop whipped cream, go with the twist or nothing at all. 

The Manhattan
2 oz Rittenhouse rye 
3/4 oz Carpano Antica
2-3 dashes Angostura bitters 

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and give it a good stir.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry.

Bourbon-soaked cherries*
1 lb. sweet cherries, pitted
1/2 cup simple syrup
1/2 oz lemon juice
1/4 oz vanilla extract
Few grates fresh nutmeg

2 star anise pods
1 cup bourbon

*Adapted from Lu's Brandied Cherries, Imbibe.  Combine all ingredients other than star anise, cherries, and bourbon in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer.  Add cherries and maintain simmer for 10 minutes.  Remove from heat and add star anise.  Allow to cool to room temperature, remove star anise, and add bourbon.  Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. 

The Manhattan

The Manhattan's versatility is evidenced by its numerous derivations, ranging from simply altered proportions of the original, to the addition of different bitters and/or amari, or even those bringing dry vermouth into the mix.  For simplicity sake, here is a brief run down of some of the more common variants gathered up by David Wondrich in his Esquire column on the Manhattan. 

Bitter variants

Monahan - 2 parts rye, 1 part sweet vermouth, splash of Amer Picon

Narragansett - 2 parts rye, 1 part sweet vermouth, splash of anisette

McKinley's Delight - 2 parts rye, 1 part sweet vermouth, 2 dashes cherry brandy, 1 dash absinthe

Sherman - 2 parts rye, 1 part sweet vermouth, dash each of Angostura/orange bitters, 3 dashes absinthe

Vermouth variants

Perfect Manhattan - 2 parts rye, 1/2 part sweet vermouth, 1/2 part dry vermouth, 2-3 dashes Angostura

Jumbo - equal parts rye, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth

Honolulu - equal parts bourbon, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth

Rosemary - equal parts bourbon, dry vermouth, 2-3 dashes Angostura

Brown University - equal parts bourbon, dry vermouth, 2-3 dashes Angostura, 2 dashes orange bitters

Brooklyn - 2 parts rye, 1 part dry vermouth, one dash each Amer Picon and Maraschino 

As is demonstrated above, the adaptations are almost limitless.  And while many of these cocktails may be considered simple variations of the Manhattan, swap out the rye whiskey for a blended scotch whisky and you've definitely got a very different animal in the Rob Roy.  Originally developed by a bartender at New York's Waldorf Hotel in 1894, this cocktail was created during a 'perfect storm' of the Scottish sort...the recent introduction of Dewar's Scotch Whisky to the states, along with the New York premiere of an opera which told the story of Scottish folk hero Robert Roy MacGregor (hence the name).  While the most common preparation of this cocktail simply substitutes the rye with blended scotch whisky, much akin to the original Manhattan, the first Rob Roy conceived at the Waldorf used orange rather than Angostura bitters.  Given its relative lack of sweetness when compared to rye, scotch whisky makes for a much drier cocktail, and I believe this suits itself best when paired with a slightly higher ratio of sweet vermouth than I'd typically use for a Manhattan. 

Rob Roy
2 oz Chivas Regal, 12 year
1 1/2 oz Carpano Antica
2-3 dashes Regan's orange bitters 

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and give it a good stir.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry. 

As I considered the different paths I could travel with the quite versatile foundation of spirit, sweet vermouth, and bitters found in the Manhattan, I began to focus on a spirit of a much more remote origin...rum. The idea of an extra aged rum along with sweet vermouth just sounded as though it would pair very well.  I could practically taste it in simple contemplation.  Terrific idea, I patted myself on the back...and was excited to give it a shot.  It was, however, so great an idea, that it was conceived quite some time the far more prestigious 1920/30s barman Harry Craddock.  First appearing in Craddock's The Savoy Cocktail Book, the Palmetto cocktail called for equal parts of rum and sweet vermouth, along with 2 dashes of orange bitters.  While credit most certainly goes to Craddock for it's creation, I wanted to tweak this just a bit to bring it more in line with my original intentions.  First, I used a heavier ratio of rum, extra aged single barrel Cruzan in this case, and a bit of a different sweet vermouth in Punt y Mes.  I thought the distinct hint of bitterness found in Punt y Mes would blend well with the sweeter and perhaps more full-bodied character of a rum which has spent so much time in the barrel.  Indeed the Cruzan bottle I went with is a blend of vintage rums which have been aged for up to 12 years...this blend then aged once more in 'new' oak casks for another year prior to heading to the bottle.  With elements of rich, dark fruit, caramel, and molasses very evident in this aged spirit, I suspected the Punt y Mes would help cut thru the sweetness a touch...coupled with the pairing of Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla and Bittermen's Xocolatl Mole bitters, I think it was right on. 

The Roystonea
2 oz Cruzan extra aged single barrel rum
1 oz Punt y Mes
1 dash Bittercube Cherry Bark Vanilla bitters
1 dash Bittermen's Xocolatl Mole bitters 

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and give it a good stir.  Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. 

The Roystonea

Looking back at all the variations on the Manhattan...subtle swaps, additions, subtractions, or ratios can lead to rather dramatic differences between the resulting cocktails.  In that respect, a side by side comparison of the Palmetto and my dubbed Roystonea were quite distinct just the same.  Enough to call it an original creation?  Not exactly.  But enough to slap a name on it so as to be distinguished enough from its long-lost relative?  In my mind...absolutely.  Give it a try.