Friday, April 23, 2010

Frontier Mixology, vol. 2: Manhattan Master Class

(Come for the drinks, Stay for the music)

This is the one, my all-time favorite cocktail, The Manhattan Cocktail. In last week's post, the Chauncey Cocktail served to show what could result from a strange pairing of spirits. In contrast, the recipe for a Manhattan is pretty well-known, second only to a Martini, perhaps. It's whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. Thus, this week's post is less about the what of the drink, but rather about the how of the drink's construction. The details are what separate a great Manhattan from a so-so cocktail, and I will delve into them deeply. In fact, taking your time making a cocktail is, for me, a virtue. When you're drinking at home you don't need to work fast. You can slow down, enjoying the process and the anticipation. The relaxing tonic of a drink begins with the time and care its construction requires.

First, you need to have something out of which to drink your drink. Now, there are great drinks that are served over ice in a tumbler -- the Manhattan is not one of them. Therefore, you need a cocktail glass. What you don't want, however, are the over-sized and ridiculous "martini" glasses that you find in a lot of stores. The volume you want for your glass is between 4 to 6 oz. The best bet is a restaurant supply store, although Crate and Barrel has one glass that isn't too huge. Alright, now that you have a glass, you want to chill the glass. What I do is simply fill the glass with some ice, add water, and let the glass sit while I'm making the drink. This chills the glass sufficiently, and gives it that nice frosted look.

Second, you need something to mix in, something to measure with, something to mix with, and something to keep the ice out of your drink. There isn't a need to get fancy here or spend a lot of money. I have a pint glass (that in which you'd be served a draught beer at a bar) that I got for a dollar. To measure, the best thing I've found is this little measuring cup from Oxo. And, please, do measure; proportions are very important, and measuring is critical to maintaining proper ratios. To stir, you can get a bar spoon, but I actually find it hard to stir with unless you turn it upside down, so I don't use it. What I do use is a glass swizzle stick that my wife had. I like it because it has a turtle on it, but that's optional. A chopstick would work well, too. Then you need something to hold back the ice when you pour the drink from the mixing glass into the cocktail glass. Here, I use a Hawthorne strainer (the strange looking device with the spring, you can get one for a couple of bucks). Now, traditionally a Hawthorn strainer was used for a mixing tin, whereas a julep strainer (like a big slotted spoon) was used for a mixing glass. I say, who cares, as long as it keeps the ice out.

Third, ice is very important to a good drink. The reason is that as you stir the cocktail, the ice melts and the water from this melt is an important ingredient in the finished drink. Thus, it is critical to use ice that is made from filtered water. Just use water from a Britta filter to fill your ice cube trays. Speaking of which, I like the big cubes produced by newly-available silicone ice cube trays. They're a pain to fill, but it's worth it -- and the cubes look great for drinks served on ice, e.g. an Old Fashioned.

Fourth, the booze. Using good but not great spirits is important. The cheap stuff will make your drinks taste like crap. But, on the other hand, I think it's a waste to use really high-end stuff in cocktails. For example, a really great bourbon has a lot of subtle factors, which, in a cocktail, are overwhelmed by the other ingredients and the temperature at which a cocktail is served. So, save your Pappy Van Winkle for drinking neat. For the whiskey, most people think it should be bourbon, but recently people have been catching on to the fact that when the Manhattan was invented in the latter nineteenth century it would have been made with rye whiskey. Rye is a little spicier and less sweet than bourbon, and I like it very much for a Manhattan. I like to use either Wild Turkey rye or Rittenhouse. Vermouth is not a spirit, but rather a fortified wine. Basically wine with extra alcohol and flavorings added. Unlike spirits, which last essentially indefinitely, after about six weeks or so the flavor of sweet vermouth starts to mute and get muskier. You can keep your vermouth in the fridge, but that's a pain, so I try to get the smallest bottle possible so it won't sit around for too long. Since vermouth is cheap, get the most expensive one, e.g. Cinzano. There is a really, really great sweet vermouth out there called Carpano Antica, which is worth drinking on its own, over ice with a slice of orange.

We come to the bitters. Bitters are a cocktail flavoring made from a variety of herbs, spices, and exotic ingredients that are steeped in alcohol. They can have a variety of different flavor profiles, e.g. orange, lemon, celery, rhubarb, but when one mentions bitters without additional qualification, you're generally talking about aromatic bitters, i.e. those flavored with warm spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, etc. Basically, Christmas-time kinda stuff. The most popular -- and for many, many years only available -- brand is Angostura bitters, which you can get at most grocery stores. Here in New York, you generally cannot get bitters at liquor stores due to state regulations that regulate alcohol sales and classify bitters in the same category as vanilla extract. There are other aromatic bitters available aside from Angostura. The best that I've found are the Fees Brothers' Whiskey Barrel Aged Old Fashioned Bitters. The Fees' regular Old Fashioned bitters are pretty good, but I think they're a little too heavy on the cinnamon, kinda one-note.
Finally, there's the problem of the cherry. Manhattans are traditionally garnished with either a cherry or a slice of orange peel. Don't use the commonly-available maraschino cherries, though. They're waxy, overly-sweet, and just plain crap. If you can find really high quality brandied cherries, they're good. I tend more often than not to just leave the garnish out entirely.

Alright, let's make that damn drink, already.

Your cocktail glass should be suitably chilled. Fill the mixing glass with ice. Now, I like to "season" my ice by adding ingredients in reverse order to their volume, so I start with two generous dashes of aromatic bitters. I like a lot of bitters, some don't, but they're wrong. Next, add 1 oz. of sweet vermouth, and 2 oz. of rye whiskey. Stir, stir, stir. Don't stir too strenuously, but just get the ice moving around the glass in a circle, gently. I like to stir for at least 30 seconds, sometimes even a minute. Again, to me, it's part of the relaxation that comes with a great cocktail. Dump the ice and water from the cocktail glass, and place it on a stable surface (not held in your hand), put the strainer over the mouth of the mixing glass, and strain into the cocktail glass. The drink should have a silken viscosity to it, it should glisten. Beautiful. Garnish with a cherry or orange peel if you want, but don't feel obliged to do so.

Most of these techniques and principles apply to making any cocktail that doesn't involve fruit juice, syrup, or egg white. Those cocktails should be shaken (wait until next week's post for that) because they're harder to combine. But for any cocktail that only involves spirits and wine, e.g. a martini, stirring is the way to go.

Drink up,



  1. brandied cherries are fairly easy to make...and cherry season is coming up! Put some up in ball jars and you will be thanking the cocktail gods for the rest of the's a good recipe, albeit with wine and not brandy: