A river runs on both sides of it
Considering the Manhattan
The Manhattan. This grandfather of cocktails is quite literally one of the oldest and is light enough, from the gentle sweetness and balanced acid of the sweet vermouth, to be the perfect drink all year round. Named for the city and the bar in which it was invented, the Manhattan even predates other classic vermouth cocktails the Martinez, the Martini, Rob Roy, and Bobby Burns. As cocktail historian David Wondrich points out in an article on the Daily Beast, in 1880, “Cocktails were for drinking, not chronicling, and bartenders were for talking to, not about.” The result is a few stories, many different recipes, and many names, all referencing the drink we all thought we knew as the Manhattan. The standard Manhattan—two parts rye, one part sweet vermouth, two dashes bitters, up with a cherry or twist—has survived good times and bad and is over a century old. It has managed to stay in some form of popularity since its recorded birth, something very few cocktails can brag about. Because, as we all know, cocktails can brag.
The most common story of how the Manhattan came to be is that it was invented at the Manhattan Club in 1870 for a party being thrown by Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother. Winston Churchill, as most will recall, was the British prime minister from 1951 to 1955 and an author but in some circles is better known for his penchant for alcohol and saying things like, “Actually, it only takes one drink to get me loaded. Trouble is, I can’t remember if it’s the thirteenth or fourteenth.” The problem with this story is that while the party was supposedly happening in New York, Lady Randolph was pregnant in the United Kingdom, making it most likely not factual, although still the most widely accepted as true.
The second recorded history comes from William F. Mulhall, a bartender who worked at the famed Hoffman House in the Village for more than thirty years. In a story he wrote in the 1880s he says, “The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black, who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the 1860s.” He also claims that it was “probably the most famous drink in the world in its time.” This story, while more plausible than the first, is not without issues. Namely, if Mr. Black popularized the drink the world over in the 1860s, it’s surprising we have no mention of it until the 1880s.
If we believe the Manhattan was invented at the Manhattan Club, then the original recipe is not the two ounces rye to one ounce sweet vermouth with a dash of bitters that we follow today. The Manhattan Club recipe is one-and-a-half ounces rye whiskey, one-and-a-half ounces sweet vermouth, and a dash of Angostura bitters, served up, probably with a twist. Maraschino cherries hit the market in the United Stated in the 1900s, so it would be then that you see the change in garnish from twist to cherry. It was around the time of Prohibition in the 1920s that the accepted recipe of a two-to-one cherry Manhattan served up was solidified. The Manhattan appears listed as a “Tennessee Cocktail” in Shake ’em Up! by V. Elliott and P. Strong, copyright 1930: “Two parts of whiskey, one part of Italian vermouth and a dash of bitters poured over ice and stirred vigorously.” Rye would have been used over bourbon, as it was what was common in New York, and later replaced by Canadian Whisky, which is also a high-rye whiskey. Bourbon would replace rye in popularity in the 1950s when the stigma of its being associated with the South probably no longer outweighed the price and taste.
William Schmidt’s Manhattan recipe, from The Flowing Bowl, published in 1891, calls for two dashes of gum (or gomme syrup, which creates a velvety mouth feel), two dashes of bitters, a dash of absinthe, two-thirds portion of whiskey, and one-third portion of vermouth. A round the same time a recipe for the Brooklyn Cocktail was published, using the same one-to-one of rye to French vermouth (which, knowing the recipe, they must mean dry vermouth) and a dash of Amer Picon (a lightly sweet French floral orange liqueur) and a dash of Maraschino liqueur. This could be what started the trend, as many modern twists would in turn name their Manhattan variations after the city in which they were created, or in homage to a city in New York. Common adaptations include the Redhook, the Greenpoint, and Remember the Maine. Where I work, we have a variation called the Goat Hill, named for a nearby neighborhood infamous for a large speakeasy that operated there during Prohibition.
No matter how you like your whiskey, there is a Manhattan for you. Prefer something less sweet? Try a perfect Manhattan, which splits the vermouth between sweet and dry. Haven’t tried a Manhattan because you don’t like Martini glasses? Order your next one on the rocks. There is no right way to make or have your Manhattan, and if you have read my previous articles, you will know that rules were meant to be broken. (At least in the cocktail world.) Cheers.
Dara Stern is a bartender at Cure and the president of the Rochester Chapter of the United States Bartender Guild.