Manhattans Revisited

Doctor, you did not use enough bitters, and you used bourbon instead of rye. Your bartending skills leave much to be desired.

A little while ago, I discussed the Manhattan cocktail.  Rather than updating the  original post, I decided to discuss some news on that front here.

In the original post, I didn’t give a formal recipe, so here I give the International Bartenders Association recipe, as given in Wikipedia:

Some further elaboration from the same article:

Traditional views insist that a Manhattan be made with rye whiskey. However, nowadays, it is more often than not made with bourbon or Canadian whisky (both of which may contain no rye at all.).

The Manhattan is subject to considerable variation and innovation, and is often a way for the best bartenders to show off their creativity.  Some shake the ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker instead of stirring it, creating a froth on the surface of the drink. Angostura are the classic bitters, but orange bitters, Peychaud’s Bitters, and even the lack of any bitters, may be used; using Fernet-Branca yields what is called a Fanciulli cocktail. Some make their own bitters and syrups, substitute comparable digestifs in place of vermouth, specialize in local or rare whiskeys, or use other exotic ingredients.  A lemon peel may be used as garnish. Some add juice from the cherry jar or Maraschino liqueur to the cocktail for additional sweetness and color.

Originally, bitters were considered an integral part of any cocktail, as the ingredient that differentiated a cocktail from a sling.  Over time, those definitions of cocktail and sling have become archaic, as sling has fallen out of general use (other than in certain drink names), and cocktail can mean any drink that resembles a martini, or simply any mixed drink.

Generally in recent years when I’ve made Manhattans, I’ve used Canadian whisky, both because I like it and from cost considerations.  In my view, Canadian whisky, by and large, is the best balance between taste and price.  Blended whiskeys are blends of various kinds of whiskeys (and sometimes neutral grain spirits).  Thus, they do not have to meet the same criteria as such whiskeys as bourbon, Irish whiskey, Scotch; and they are, in general, milder in taste.  With Canadian whisky, though, “milder” does not mean “weak” or “watered-down-tasting”.  Canadian whisky, in my opinion, is the best-tasting blended whisky–mild but not boring.  Despite this, it is much cheaper than Scotch or Irish whiskey, and generally cheaper, or at least no more expensive than, most bourbons.  Thus, in general, it’s my go-to whiskey.  I have found Manhattans made with Canadian whisky to be quite good.

A couple weeks ago, being short cash, I bought some Beam’s Eight Star–a blended Kentucky whiskey.  I drank a shot to see what it tasted like.  It wasn’t promising–to me it tasted like a heavily watered-down bourbon.  Still, I was willing to give it a shot.  The Manhattans I made with it were all right, but very nondescript.  Not awful, but not something I’d want to do again.

This weekend I decided to do it the right way, and use actual rye whiskey.  Rye, once one of the major American spirits, is much rarer than it once was (though I understand that it’s making a minor comeback).  In any case, small-town liquor stores rarely stock it, or if they do, it’s in small quantities from just a few brands.  The liquor store I usually shop at had only Wild Turkey 101 Rye Wiskey, so that’s what I got (a good review of it is here).  I don’t think it will replace single-malt scotch at the top of my whiskey pantheon, but it was quite good.  I’d certainly place it above bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and Canadian whiskey for pure taste as a sipping whiskey.

The Manhattans it made were great.  Very flavorful, complex, and interesting.  I think I might have to retract my speculation from the earlier post that bitters are in the recipe to counterbalance the sweet vermouth.  By itself, sweet vermouth is very sweet, almost syrupy.  It’s very noticeable in a Manhattan if you use Canadian or some other mild whiskey.  The rye, however, was not so submissive.  Rather than giving a sweet overtone, the vermouth blends more into the rye, taking some of the edge off and making the flavor more complex.  You certainly don’t taste overwhelming sweetness.  In fact, I could actually argue that the traditional garnish, a maraschino cherry, might add to the sweetness of the vermouth.  Generally I don’t worry about garnishes–I didn’t this time–but I can see that in this case it might add to the taste in a way that olives don’t with martinis.

The bitters add complexity, too.  From what I read as I was researching some of this on Wikipedia, it was considered standard to have bitters in whiskey-based cocktails in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Drinks without bitters weren’t even defined as cocktails then, but as “slings”.  Thus, once more, the bitters apparently do not counterbalance the vermouth, but add to the complexity of the flavor.

I think in the future I will reserve rye as the whiskey of choice for Manhattans.  There is something to tradition, in this case!

Posted on 21/10/2012, in cocktails, food and drink and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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