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Cocktail Trends

The Secrets Behind Smooth Manhattans

February 14, 2012 By: Robert Plotkin


It must have been one heck of a party. As the story goes, during the presidential race of 1876, New York socialite and heiress Jenny Jerome held a campaign function for candidate Samuel Tilden at the famed Manhattan Club. Miss Jerome, soon to become Lady Randolph Churchill and mother of Winston, requested a special cocktail be created for the event.

What the staff devised consisted of rye whiskey, Angostura bitters and Italian (sweet) vermouth. Like a spark to tinder, the cocktail Manhattanswept through New York society. The drink that we now know as the Manhattan literally became the toast of the town. It’s said that financial mogul J. P. Morgan drank the cocktail every evening after a full day of trading on Wall Street.

The Manhattan’s current revival has everything to do with the drink itself. It is about as suave and delectable as a cocktail gets. It’s smooth and aromatic and has a thoroughly satisfying flavor. Unlike the Martini, which is more of an acquired taste, the Manhattan possesses a nearly universal appeal and doesn’t require enduring a learning curve to appreciate. While a relatively straightforward concoction, there are a sufficient number of components in the drink to devise genuinely singular and innovative signature Manhattans. Learning how to tweak these various elements is at the heart of the creative process.

While it’s true that few cocktails will transcend the popularity of the Martini, it’s equally true that few cocktails will ever taste better than a well-chilled Manhattan. The choice is yours: Follow the crowd or find soul-satisfying bliss.

Check out these tips to making a great Manhattan:

Stirred or Shaken? The decision whether to stir or shake is not as clear-cut with the Manhattan as it is with the Martini. Traditionally, a cocktail constructed of only an aperitif or fortified wine and a distilled spirit would be stirred gently in the mixing glass until the ingredients have reached serving temperature. As is the case of the Martini, the proper serving temperature for a Manhattan is around 37˚F to 38˚F. The basic ingredients are sufficiently close in specific gravity as to not require shaking to ensure that they fully integrate.

But vigorously shaking a Manhattan is gaining acceptance, possibly because the principal ingredient is bourbon, a stalwart and hardy spirit that thrives when shaken. Bourbon’s deep rich color prevents any semblance of “bruising,” an affliction associated with a shaken Martini. Another consideration is that shaking a Manhattan will result in a bit more water going into the cocktail, not a bad thing when working with whiskeys.

Uptown Vermouth. Mastering the Manhattan requires the use of high-quality vermouth. There are perceptible differences in quality between the various brands of vermouth. While it may be inexpensive, vermouth is a complex aperitif wine, one that is difficult and laborious to make well. Suffice to say, the better the vermouth, the better the resulting Manhattan.

When in doubt, fall back to the time-tested brands, such as Italian Martini & Rossi, Cinzano, Stock, Noilly Prat and Vya Preferred California Sweet Vermouth. They are immeasurably better than the rest of the field and have a marked impact on the quality of the finished drink. Taking shortcuts with a cocktail like the Manhattan invariably nicks the final product.

The Aperitif Difference. One of the appeals of the Manhattan, like the Martini, is that it accommodates a great deal of creative latitude. When exploring just how versatile the cocktail is, consider substituting another type of aperitif wine for the vermouth. An excellent jumping off point is using one of the two grand dames of the category, Dubonnet and Lillet. Both brands are available in two styles: rouge and blanc. Ideally suited for use in signature Manhattans, the rouge version is made on a base of premium red wine and infused with a proprietary blend of herbs, spices and peels. The wine is fortified with grape spirits to an elevated strength of 19% alcohol by volume.

Those with adventure in their soul may want to try substituting the vermouth with Pineau des Charentes. Pineau des Charentes is a French aperitif made from a blend of unfermented grape must and Cognac brandy. Most varieties of Pineau are crafted from the grapes Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard, with occasional Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Montils. The mixture is aged for at least 18 months in oak barrels. Pineau seems created specifically with the Manhattan in mind. Its natural sweetness is expertly balanced by the acidity and increased alcohol percentage.

Fortified options. Fortunately for the Manhattan-adoring public, there are more fortified wines that can be drafted into service. In fact, the roster of possible contestants includes some of the biggest, most famous names in aperitif wines.

Port is a sensational replacement for sweet vermouth in a Manhattan. On the whole, ports have supple, velvety textured bodies, wafting, fruit-laced bouquets and ideally balanced, flavor-laden palates. They are especially well suited for pairing with whiskeys and brandies. The Port of Manhattan is a specialty cocktail made with tawny port and a splash of Chambord, both of which ideally accentuate the woody, smoky character of the featured bourbon.

Sherry is another stellar fortified wine tailor-made for use in gourmet Manhattans. It is produced in the district of Jerez de la Frontera, the famed wine-growing region in southern Spain between Cadiz and Seville. Illustrating Sherry’s versatility is the Spanish Manhattan, an elegant cocktail made with Fino Sherry instead of vermouth. The nutty character of the Sherry makes it perfectly cast in a supporting role.

Madeira is a celebrated fortified wine often featured as a modifier in specialty Manhattans. While considered a sweet dessert wine, there are dry styles of Madeira as well. Made in Portugal, the wine is blended and aged in Soleras, similar to how Sherries are produced. Madeiras are typically fortified with grape spirits or brandy.

Tapping the spirit world. There are numerous reasons to promote top-shelf Manhattans, not the least of which is the axiom that the better the whiskey, the better the resulting Manhattan.

One of the objectives when devising a signature Manhattan is to present a specific brand of bourbon in a creative vehicle that best enhances its characteristics. For example, the Italian Manhattan does a superb job showcasing the Maker’s Mark Bourbon. This small-batch whiskey is highly aromatic and an ideal candidate for use in a gourmet cocktail. The recipe substitutes Disaronno Amaretto and several dashes of cherry juice for the sweet vermouth. The nutty almond flavor of the amaretto highlights the smoky, caramel flavors in the whiskey.

Nowhere is it written that you are confined to only using bourbon in your specialty Manhattans. Lacing a whiskey or brandy with a fortified wine is a model for success, and it has spawned numerous variations made with an array of different spirits. One example is the Quebec Manhattan, which is made with Canadian whisky, dry vermouth and several dashes each of Amer Picon and maraschino liqueur.

An early variation of the cocktail is the Prohibition Manhattan. It is made with rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and orange bitters. The Irish Manhattan is constructed using Irish whiskey, sweet vermouth and a healthy dose of bitters.

Modifying with liqueurs. An innovative way to alter the character and personality of a Manhattan is to modify it with a liqueur. Mixology is replete with successful examples. The New Orleans Manhattan is made by first swirling the inside of the chilled cocktail glass with Frangelico. The excess is discarded, and the Manhattan is poured in. The Frangelico adds a delightful nutty aroma and flavor to the cocktail.

The Satin Manhattan is a chic cocktail made with sweet vermouth, Grand Marnier and whiskey, while the Blue Grass Blues Manhattan is a blend of dry vermouth, Blue Curaçao, bitters and bourbon. Other liqueur options include using Chambord to make a Raspberry Manhattan, Benedictine D. O. M. in the Preakness Manhattan, Kirschwasser for a Danish Manhattan and Yellow Chartreuse in the Biscayne Manhattan.

Muddled results. As generations of Old Fashioned enthusiasts will attest, bourbon and muddled fruit taste sublime. In the pursuit of a genuinely delicious Manhattan, don’t overlook the creative option of muddling fruit such as oranges, lemons, cherries, peaches, apricots and tangerines into the cocktail. The selected fruit should be placed into a mixing glass and muddled; the liquid ingredients then should be added. The bitterness from the pith and the sweetness of the juice make marvelous additions to specialty Manhattans and add greatly to the drink’s production value.

Ending credits. The garnish on a Manhattan is a stemmed maraschino cherry. When devising a specialty Manhattan, however, creative latitude goes with the territory. Make sure that the garnish you choose complements the taste and enhances the appearance of the cocktail. Possibilities include Amareno cherries, brandied cherries, orange wedges and lemon or orange twist spirals.

Little did the staff at the Manhattan Club realize the revolution they were fomenting when first they laced rye whiskey with vermouth. More than a century later, mixologists still are following suit and crafting timeless classics by pairing spirits with delicate fortified wines in the form of gourmet Manhattans. Vive la révolution!


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