Drink

5 Ways to Make A Manhattan

David Wondrich establishes guidelines on this popular 130-year-old classic...then breaks them.
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We don’t have any hard numbers for you, but countless hours of observation led us to believe that the Manhattan is now being ordered more than the martini at good cocktail bars. The tricky part is that the martini worked as the Default American Cocktail because it’s so simple. The Manhattan, of course, is not so simple: There are four ingredients, not three. And adding a little more or a little less of any of the ingredients changes everything. A good Manhattan can be every bit as good as a good martini (as heretical and blasphemous as that may sound to cocktail purists). A bad Manhattan will always be much worse.

So, standards must be set—standards for the archetypal Manhattan and for ways to beneficially adulterate the archetypal form. Here are five ways to make a Manhattan. David Wondrich, Esquire’s longtime drinking correspondent, on the precise way. It involves measuring, stirring, and paying very close attention. The other ways, not so much.

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Step 1: Assemble your ingredients.

The earliest unequivocal reference to a Manhattan cocktail dates back to September 1882. It describes the drink as “a mixture of whiskey, vermouth and bitters.” Such was the Manhattan then, such it is now, such shall it ever be, world without end. As with any item of scripture, however, there is room for interpretation.

These days, rye whiskey gets the nod from cocktail geeks and bourbon from everyone else (save those heretics who call for Canadian). Bourbon appears almost as often as rye does in the old recipes, so they’re both authentic.

We find, however, that it’s proof that matters the most. A whiskey in the 90- to 110-proof range makes a better Manhattan than an 80- or 86-proof one. Proof being equal, we do prefer rye but will settle happily for bourbon. The vermouth should be the sweet red kind. The bitters should be Angostura.

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Step 2: Prepare your glass

Place the glass in the freezer for 30 minutes. We prefer the style known as the coupe or the old-style cocktail glass (pictured below), with its curved-in sides, to the V-shaped martini type, because they don’t spill as easily. Whatever you use, it shouldn’t be larger than five or six ounces.

Step 3: Measure your ingredients

Pour a measured 2 oz whiskey and 1 oz vermouth into a standard pint glass. If you’re using a conical jigger to do the measuring, make sure to fill it all the way to surface tension. Add two or three dashes bitters—and by dashes we mean good, vigorous squirts, not drops. If the bottle is very full, the squirts should be smaller and you’ll need 5 or 6.

Step 4: Crack your ice

To get a stirred drink (see Step 5) truly cold, you’ve got to break up your ice cubes to increase the surface area in contact with the liquid. Put an ice cube in the (clean) palm of your left hand. Grasp a barspoon by the very end of the handle and snap the bowl against the cube, almost as if you were swinging a golf club. Repeat four or five times, and then crack and add a few more cubes.

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Step 5: Stir

Shaking makes it just as cold, but the drink ends up cloudy and topped with an algae-like layer of foam. Stirring leaves the drink clear and homogenous to the eye and, more importantly, silky and almost oily on the tongue.

The goal is to make the ice revolve smoothly without circling your forearm as if you were mixing cake batter or thrashing the spoon around the ice like a swimmer fighting off a shark attack. Your wrist and fingers are the only things that should move. This is easy if you’re using a stirring rod or even the handle of a barspoon, but far more satisfying if you’ve mastered using the spoon as God intended. The trick to maneuvering the bowl of the spoon through the ice is to trap the shaft between your index and middle fingers, with the top of it resting in the notch between thumb and index. Then you use the middle finger to push it (counter-clockwise) halfway around a tight circle and the index to pull it back. A smooth stir is one of the bartender’s subtlest skills. Fifty revolutions at a minimum.

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Step 6: Strain

Slide a julep strainer, as the traditional, large perforated spoon used with stirred drinks is known, into the glass. Strain the drink into your chilled glass.

Step 7: Garnish

The standard maraschino cherry has been a part of the drink since at least 1891. The lemon twist was probably there for another decade before that. In other words, use whichever you like. We prefer the twist because of the fragrant and appetizing slick of lemon oil it leaves on the surface of the drink. With a knife (old-school) or vegetable peeler, cut a 1 1/2-inch-by-1/2-inch swatch of peel, avoiding the white pith. Hold it skin-down between thumb and index finger over the drink and snap it in half length-wise. Drop it in or discard, as you prefer.

The Right Way

There is a correct way to make a Manhattan. It’s mostly a matter of getting your mind right, although there is one physical skill to be mastered. Learn to make a proper Manhattan and you will know how to create at least one lawless thing in this world, and the person you’re making it for will know, and respect that about you.

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Not The Wrong Way

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  • Assemble your ingredients.
  • Acquire a glass—from the freezer or not.
  • Into a vessel larger than the glass, place some ice cubes. Also pour in some whiskey. Then half as much sweet vermouth. A couple dashes bitters.
  • Stir with whatever stirring implement you happen to have nearby.
  • Strain into the glass. If necessary, let your fingers be the sieve.
  • Drink.

Possible Adulterations

  • Substitutes for vermouth?
  • Dubonnet or Lillet
  • Wine-based aperitifs and the like can work fine but must be approved on a case-by-case basis.
  • Ruby port is nice.
  • So are Italian amari.
  • Madeiras and the sweeter sherries (not a fino, Manzanilla, or amontillado).
  • NOTE: You occasionally see a “perfect Manhattan” on a cocktail menu. In drink-making, “perfect” always refers to the addition of equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. I can’t recommend it. I find that dry vermouth clashes with the whiskey and makes an awkward drink; you may disagree.

On the Rocks

If you pour the ingredients for a Manhattan over ice, you do not then have a manhattan. You have something else. It’s tasty, but it’s not a Manhattan.

***

Blow It Up: David Granger's Endorsement of the Tequila Manhattan

I am fond of the Manhattan. I am also fond of tequila. So I often make my Manhattans with tequila in place of the whiskey and I often order them that way, too.

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I am not arguing that the Manhattan made with tequila is superior to (or even as good as) a traditional Manhattan. It’s a refreshing change, but it’s not as big a drink. It does, though, have an advantage for certain drinking occasions, such as lunch or a long night, during the course of which you will consume multiple drinks: In the same way that it’s a lighter-tasting drink, it also gives a different, gentler buzz. Most añejo tequilas (and you need the flavor of the barrel for a manhattan) have less alcohol than bourbons, especially the bourbons our friend Mr. Wondrich recommends for use in Manhattans. So you get drunk less quickly. I would estimate that the effect of three tequila Manhattans is the equivalent of two actual Manhattans.

One last thing not strictly related: While I am adamantly opposed to the “measured pour” as it relates to a simple drink of any liquor and ice or any liquor neat (bartenders need to be generous souls), I highly recommend measurement in the creation of either the Manhattan or the tequila Manhattan.

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The bartender at Boulud Sud in New York made me a tequila Manhattan not long ago. It was delicious. As I headed to my table, I asked him for his recipe. He had used the same exact ingredients I had been using at home (Don Julio Añejo, Carpano sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters). I asked him why his drink was better than mine. He answered with a question: Do you measure? I was not measuring. I do now. I know Mr. Wondrich is proud.

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