Mad for a Manhattan
Iconic cocktail takes simplicity to complex levels
The sweet, complex notes from the whiskey (traditionally rye, although I prefer a good bourbon) balance against the complex flavors of the sweet vermouth and bitters. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
That's all there is to making a Manhattan. And yet the classic cocktail has endured since the 1870s. It's iconic. And for good reason. Like every great cocktail, the finished product is even better than the sum of the individual components — no matter how good those ingredients are.
The sweet, complex notes from the whiskey (traditionally rye, although I prefer a good bourbon) balance against the complex flavors of the sweet vermouth and bitters, and add up to a drink that is sweet, but not too sweet, complex and warming.
"It's supposed to be powerful, it should rack you up in a warm dark liquor embrace," says Paulius Nasvytis, owner of Cleveland's Velvet Tango Room, which helped pioneer the chic cocktail lounge trend when it opened in 1996.
While making a good Manhattan is straightforward, like most things, it all comes down to the details.
Start with the liquor. Even though rye is traditional, Nasvytis prefers the more mellow bourbon. At the Velvet Tango Room, where the bar's three variations on the Manhattan are its most popular drinks, he uses Maker's Mark because of its smooth, honeyed flavor with notes
of caramel and dark fruit. However, I prefer the sharper, drier taste of Bulleit Bourbon, which is 30 percent rye, which lends the cocktail distinct oak and vanilla notes.
Then there's the vermouth. Given that it makes up about one-third of the cocktail, the vermouth is crucial to the recipe. And yet vermouth is where people often go wrong, Nasvytis says. They either pay no heed to the vermouth they're buying, or they use an old bottle that has lost its punch. That's because even though it is fortified, it doesn't last forever, which means a vermouth that hasn't been refrigerated probably isn't good after a month or so. Try Vya Sweet, a Madera, Calif.-produced vermouth made from a blend of tempranillo and orange muscat grapes that is infused with more than 17 herbs and spices giving it spicy notes of cinnamon, nutmeg and dark fruit.
Don't forget the Angostura bitters, which are like the Manhattan's seasoning, bringing out and marrying the flavors of the whiskey and vermouth. Add ice and stir. Don't shake, which causes small pieces of ice to cloud the cocktail's clarity. "It should be gently stirred, caressed and loved," Nasvytis says.