The Iconic Spirits Blog: In Search of the Ultimate Manhattan
March 28, 2012
I’m a Manhattan drinker. It has little to do with nostalgia for the Big Apple, my place of birth, and more to do with the fact that I crave flavor. On top of that, I have a weakness for the generosity of texture found in a range of traditional whiskies.
Some of you are aware that the Wall Street Journal did a piece on the Manhattan about a month ago. It appeared to be an informative feature, but it contained some omissions and misinformation. To give you full disclosure, the author, Kevin Sintumuang, belongs to a different generation than I do (an evasive way of saying he’s younger). He may or may not drink Manhattans, but his knowledge of them seems restricted to versions of the cocktail found in high-end bars of the moment. The experience is similar to watching a revival of the musical Oklahoma!---you may find it entertaining, but you’re bound to miss some period references.
The most amazing thing about Sintumuang’s story is that he fails to mention blended whisky at all. He’s probably not to blame for this: the gurus of the current cocktail culture wouldn’t drink Canadian Club if you pulled their fingernails out under torture. Yet blended whisky, particularly Canadian, is a drink of subtlety, balance and nuance. The current generation of mixologists prefers Rye and Bourbon, which have a more dramatic impact on the palate.
Rye, of course, was the stuff of which the Manhattan was originally made, so a New Yorker can be excused for preferring it. Two of the Ryes mentioned in the WSJ piece, Rittenhouse and Bulleit, are spectacular whiskies, although the third (High West, from Utah) would likely be impossible to find. Sintumuang is also judicious in his choice of Bourbon, recommending Buffalo Trace, Four Roses and Makers Mark. He neglects to mention, though, that a Manhattan made with Bourbon usually requires less vermouth, since the spirit is sweeter due to a majority of corn in the blend.
Speaking of vermouth, Sintumuang recommends Martini & Rossi, which could generously be described as garbage. Here’s the uncomfortable truth: If you spend less than $10 on a bottle of sweet vermouth, you’re buying cloying sweetness and not much else. To his credit, he does mention Dolin ($16-18), a light, floral and aromatic vermouth from the French Alps which is absolutely delightful; Punt y Mes ($20), which would likely be too bitter for the average drinker (he suggests cutting it with Cinzano); and Carpano Antica ($30-35), the richest and most seductive of them all, which unfortunately costs more than many people would spend for a bottle of whisky. A good compromise is Noilly Prat, which costs $10-12 in most parts of the country.
Sintumuang takes up the subject of bitters last, which is a serious reversal of priorities. Bitters are where a Manhattan starts---put them in first, immediately after the ice, to allow their flavor to permeate the ice cubes. With the popularity of today’s cocktail culture you have a wide range of bitters to choose from, but Angostura (as Sintumuang correctly observes) is a safe, high-quality choice. Orange bitters can make a notable addition to the drink, but be careful of bargain-basement options. I discovered this recently when I bought a bottle of Blood Orange Bitters from Stirrings for $4.99, rationalizing the purchase with the time-honored question “How bad can they be?” Spring for Regan’s Orange Bitters, which are excellent and not much more expensive. With bitters, as with vermouth, remember my grandmother’s dictum: “Cheap is cheap.”
In closing, I applaud Sintumuang for reminding people that you should never, ever shake a Manhattan. Stir, even if you’re having the drink straight up. And remember that while there’s no such thing as the Ultimate Manhattan (at least not one with universal appeal), you’ll find yours with experimentation and purity of approach.
ABOUT THE BOOK: Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, by Mark Spivak, will be published in November by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot). Writing in an engaging and appealing style, Spivak chronicles the tales of twelve spirits that changed the world and forged the cocktail culture. While some are categories and others are specific brands, they are "the best kinds of stories: the type a writer could never make up."