Is it a cocktail, this feeling of joy?
— Cole Porter, “At Long Last Love”
Cocktail Nation is dead. Take Mel Tormé — please — off the hi-fi. Unplug the lava lamp and closet your monogrammed bowling shirts. The ersatz hepcats have fallen on their own swizzle sticks and bleed blue curaçao from their wounds. Meanwhile, in a thousand ill-conceived tiki bars, leather-skinned bar hags greedily lap the final swallows of poorly poured cosmopolitans, choco-tinis, and banana split frappés.
But though the bodies of these frivolous footsoldiers from the retrograde vanguard clutter the field, they are victorious, for fresh troops — the appallingly named “foodies” — have hoisted high the standard of competitive connoisseurship. Armed with handcrafted bar tools and shielded by traveling cases for fine stemware, they press onward, determined to vanquish all good humor from the act of drinking. They crest, wave upon wave, upon the fortress of sensible drinking, and the stronghold shall soon fall.
Let us put down our topically named tropical drinks, our raspberry vodka, our Red Bull and Jägermeister. Let us roll up our sleeves and speak plainly. Let us drink like men. And women. I propose in this column to celebrate drink, hard liquor and cocktails in particular, of fine quality and judicious blending, with a minimum of pretense.
And to begin, may I explain why the Manhattan is the finest cocktail going?
Like most drinks not named for their bartender, their bar of origin, or figures of fun, the history of the Manhattan is obscured by the mists of time. It’s rumored that the first Manhattan was shaken in 1846, in Maryland, by a bartender trying to revive an injured duelist. He mixed rye whiskey, sugar syrup, and bitters — no word how the duelist fared but one can assume he recovered a fighting chance.
From the Middle Atlantic, the recipe traveled from tavern to saloon to bar until it reached Manhattan, where, during the Gay Nineties, vermouth was substituted for syrup, thus completing a recipe that endures today. (As to the name, well, New Yorkers often struggle to believe that anything great can have found its origin elsewhere.)
Why do I preach the virtues of this potion? Why do I dare claim its preeminence over all other cocktails? The reasons are as manifold as they are many.
The Manhattan, properly made, is sweet but not too; a hint of bitterness appeals to those who drink their whiskey neat. The kick is strong but not overpowering, and only after a few refills do you grasp the potency of the fuel alternative sloshing in your glass. Served as a cocktail, it appeases the most BAC-hungry boozehound; on the rocks, the melting ice renders a more palatable potency for the novice or casual drinker.
The recipe is exceedingly resilient. A Manhattan, though no longer a Manhattan, is still quite enjoyable when bourbon is replaced with Scotch, brandy, or even tequila.
To order a Manhattan is to confound mundanity, piquing the interest of your barmates as the syllables fall trippingly off your tongue. Yet it won’t make an enemy of the bartender, as will the request of an exquisitely layered Pousse-Café.
It is among the most beautiful of drinks. Served in quality glassware, the Manhattan captures the amber mystery of all bourbons, with an embering warmth imparted by the vermouth. A single maraschino cherry provides enticement to the child in all of us, like the fruit at the bottom of a cup of yogurt. (I implore you, however, not to eat the god-damned thing.)
Most importantly, even neophytes enjoy drinking Manhattans. In my many, many years of serving the drink, I’ve almost never failed to make a convert. By way of contrast, when I mix martinis for those who have never traveled beyond the bourne of a pint of suds, the virgin sip is followed by coughing, a polite grimace, and then forty minutes of puckered sipping — and a polite request for a short lager.
So how to properly manufacture a Manhattan? Before even contemplating proportions, you must gather the proper ingredients: bourbon or rye, sweet vermouth, and bitters. We are no longer children, and shall not drink like them; therefore, purchase quality makings. Old Fitzgerald and Old Forester are quite suitable whiskeys, and I prefer Noilly Prat vermouth to Cinzano or Martini y Rossi. (Make my Manhattan with Gallo vermouth and you’ll find that I haven’t forgotten all I learned about bare-knuckle boxing.) And while New Orleansians sing the praises of Peychaud’s bitters, Angostura makes a superior product for our purposes.
Now, the measure: three parts bourbon, one part sweet vermouth, and an assured splash of Angostura bitters. You may either pour this over ice in a short glass and swirl it, or stir it in a shaker and strain it into a cocktail glass. A single cherry is optional, but remember, only a person of low character would eat this confection. If you crave more sweetness, add a bit more vermouth.
Never, ever pour cherry juice into a Manhattan.
When venturing forth from my cozy library, I’ve sampled countless Manhattans, whether in hotel saloons, steamship bars, or public-house snuggeries, and have found that most so-called mixologists are unaware of this simple outline for drinking pleasure. Some pour two-to-one (far too sweet) and some substitute dry vermouth (clearly they should have their licenses revoked). Worse, I’ve received clusters of cherries, cherry juice, and even grenadine in my Manhattan. These beer-pulling hacks are beneath contempt. This turns a refined pleasure into the alcoholic equivalent of cotton candy.
Please, try the following experiment in good living: the next time you belly up to the bar, place your foot on the rail, and order a Manhattan, “up.” When it arrives, prepare your palate with three or four salted peanuts, then grasp the pencil-thin spindle of the glass gently between your fingers. Raise the glass until the dying afternoon sun infuses the drink with a warm, comradely glow. Then shut your eyes to the television set, shut your ears to your neighbors’ prattling, and drink.
© 2005 by Keir Graff. All rights reserved.