Don’t Mess with Tradition, or How Not to Make a Manhattan
Posted on December 28th, 2011
Of all the cocktails that the sufficiently mustachioed gentleman with rolled sleeves behind the bar can construct for you, I’ve always considered the Manhattan to be vastly superior to the rest. This has reasons of an aesthetic nature as well as those pertaining purely to sensory pleasures. Beautiful in color, the drink smells sweeter than straight whiskey but still carries enough menace for the novice and the teetotaler to take one whiff and turn away. Originally, rye whiskey was used, and the Rye Manhattan is once again in vogue, but Michter’s Bourbon will do the trick just as capably. Think again if you try to wing it with bottom shelf poison, because the flavor of the base alcohol plays such an important role. Many bartenders reach for the awkward, cylindrical cocktail glass when pouring, but I prefer mine in a rocks glass, and will attempt to duel with anyone who dares to impose an ice cube.
The Manhattan also has a history behind it, the sort of respectable history that has nothing to do with Cancun, spring break or Jagermeister (thank heaven). Versions of the story vary, but the first classic Manhattan is widely considered to have been poured somewhere in the 1860s or 1870s in New York City. Wikipedia suggests that it was birthed either in a high society hangout called the Manhattan Club or in a bar on Broadway and Houston; in either case, the drink brings to mind a different time, a time of unironic brimmed hats and ladies in long gloves, a time we have come to idolize today as the aesthetic antidote to a culture of frat bars, Kardashians, “harem pants” and other trash.
I am not a barman, just a drinker and a fan. But my inner booze slinger was tested this December when my girlfriend’s friends, a couple who had just taken a mixology class together, threw a cocktail party at their home with a “make your own cocktail” theme. Here was my opportunity to pay homage to the classic Manhattan by making it for others. Whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters: what’s so hard?
A close friend and colleague of mine, now a successful financial journalist, did time in the foodservice industry and pours the best Manhattans I’ve ever sipped. I asked her for her secret. “I go a little bit lighter on the whiskey, which makes it sweeter than most bartenders’,” she offered. “Really?” I said. I thought her cocktails were quite boozy, and didn’t feel like there was less alcohol in the formula. So a little less whiskey, a little more vermouth, about the same amount of bitters – easy enough.
By the time we arrived at the party, more than half of the guests were already there. The room was filling up fast. I sipped Maker’s neat, staying away from cocktails after trying someone’s milky, Sambuca-infused concoction. Finally, I decided to step up to the shaker, the last cocktail attempt of the night.
My first mistake was using ice. A Manhattan is served chilled, usually in a chilled glass (if it’s a cocktail glass, not rocks). At this point in the night, it didn’t matter: Everyone was sort of drunk, it was hard to find clean glasses and the ice was melting in the sink as the temperature of the apartment rose. (It was cold outside and the room was crowded.) I threw some half-melted ice cubes in the shaker, poured what I thought was the intended amount of Maker’s, vermouth and bitters, and gave my girlfriend – who chose to assist me in the making of the cocktail – the thing to shake. Then she poured a little into a shot glass. I sipped. Something was very off. The color was too light, the taste too weak. “Add more Maker’s!” I said, acting as if I knew what I was doing. And then I made my second mistake.
Someone brought a bottle of Cabin Fever Maple Whiskey, and somehow I got the idea that the maple will complement the drink and soften the edge that I initially intended this cocktail to have. I suppose I can blame all the Maker’s I drank, or the heat, or the noise, or some ugly existential crisis, but I am not on Capitol Hill and must cease the finger-pointing and admit that the fault lies with me and my judgment alone. I threw a dash of Cabin Fever into the mix. The result made my cocktail taste like a weak dessert drink, still pale in color. My girlfriend gave up on the shaking. The ice cubes completely melted inside the shaker, giving the drink a watery quality. Desperate, I added even more Maker’s, which did little for the color and not much more for the flavor. I surrendered.
Those who tried the resulting (revolting?) cocktail were exceedingly kind. “It’s like a dessert drink,” said one person. “It’s better than some of the others, I mean it’s drinkable,” said my girlfriend dutifully. But I knew it was over; when no one was looking, I spilled the rest of the shaker’s contents into the sink, feeling guilty about all the wasted Maker’s – not my choice of whiskey, but utterly undeserving of such treatment.
I suppose I should keep practicing; I plan to undertake this challenge the way I undertake anything I’m not good at: alone, with the tools of the trade around me, trying again and again until I am at least somewhat adequate. If anything, I learned that experiments are best left to professionals. A novice must first learn the right way – you can’t play guitar with your teeth until you’ve learned to fingerpick. Considering that even professional bartenders haven’t managed to improve on the formula of the classic Manhattan in some 150 years, you can expect that when I do finally pour you a Manhattan, it will be the Old Fashioned.