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Food & Drink | The Manhattan - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time

Food & Drink | The Manhattan - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time

All five boroughs of New York City have cocktails named after them: the Bronx and the Queens are gin & vermouth mixes while the Staten Island Ferry has given its name to an exotic rum-based concoction similar to a Piña Colada. But much older than these are whiskey based mixes: the mighty Manhattan and it's lesser-known but equally delicious neighbour, the Brooklyn. Like the eponymous island, the Manhattan is bittersweet, strong, eternally cool, and yet retains a slight dangerous edge.

Manhattan ingredients:

  • 2 pts Rye or Bourbon whiskey

  • 1 pt sweet red Vermouth,

  • 2 dashes Orange Bitters

  • 1 dash Angostura Bitters

Garnish with a Maraschino cherry (see The Garnish below)

Method :

Pour the whiskey, vermouth & bitters into a mixing glass with some ice; stir well; strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with the cherry.

A proper Manhattan should be made with Rye whiskey, but Bourbon works fine as well - it’s a matter of personal taste. The difference between them being essentially the cereals from which they’re made: Bourbon comes from a corn mash and has a slightly sweet, full-bodied flavour while Rye comes from - you guessed it - a rye mash yielding spicy notes and a drier taste. Both must be aged for at least two years to be called “Straight Bourbon” or “Straight Rye.”

I’m using American whiskey rather than Scotch whisky partly because a Manhattan surely demands an American spirit; partly because I like its accessible smokey flavour but, if I'm honest, partly also because the editor of our pages is a Scot who believes violently that adulterating Scotch whisky with anything except possibly water from the River Spey constitutes a crime matching the gravity of child pornography or genocide.

I've got myself some “Eagle Rare” Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey from the Buffalo Trace Distillery of Frankfort, Kentucky, and jolly nice it is too... or one can use a Rye whiskey like Rittenhouse, Knob Creek or Wild Turkey 101.

Angostura bitters

For the vermouth I'm going with Mulassano from Turin, produced from 100% Moscato grapes. The bouquet is spicy and herbaceous which adds an extra layer to the Manhattan.

Regan’s Orange bitters

Bitters are a concentrated liquor (upto 44% alcohol!) flavored with botanicals and characterised by a sharp or bitter flavour, used for flavouring drinks. Only a couple of drops are needed per drink. The most famous brand is Angostura Bitters made in Trinidad and Tobago and based on gentian (a herb), cassia (a spice like cinnamon), orange peel and other spices. Orange bitters is a variation made from the peel of the more bitter Seville oranges, cardamom, caraway seed, coriander and burnt sugar in an alcohol base.

The garnish:

A cherry is the customary garnish for Manhattans, though orange or lemon peel work quite nicely too. Maraschino is a type of cherry with a slightly bitter flavour; less sweet than say a Burlat or a Morello cherry. The word “Maraschino” is the Italian for Marasca cherries which grow wild along parts of the Dalmatian coast, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea from Italy. You can preserve your own cherries and that way you're sure of their quality, because those bright scarlet things in a sticky jar gathering dust at the back of your cocktail cabinet are not necessarily as natural as you may think.

The origin of the towering Manhattan

There are references to drinks called "Manhattan" served in the Manhattan area of New York City in the mid-1800’s - according to one account it was invented in the 1860’s by a bartender named Black at a bar on Broadway near Houston Street. But the story that has most captured people’s imagination over the last 140 years claims it was devised by a Dr. Iain Marshall in 1874 for a party thrown by Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Jeanette Spencer-Churchill, at the Manhattan Club in New York in honor of a Democratic presidential candidate named Samuel J. Tilden. The celebrity of the party among New York’s beau monde made the drink instantly fashionable, prompting people to order it by referring to the place it came from: "the Manhattan cocktail". However, doubt has been cast on this story because, at the time of this alleged birth of the legendary Manhattan in the Big Apple, Lady Churchill was supposedly in England giving actual birth to the future Prime Minister. We don't know the date of the party for Samuel Tilden, but Winston was born on 30th November 1874 so that does leave some time earlier in the year when, pregnancy permitting, she could have made the transatlantic crossing over to New York. Whether it’s true or not, the Manhattan deserves a glamourous backstory like that. And it’s hard to doubt a connection to the Manhattan Club, a social organisation for rich Democrats where Samuel Tilden did indeed celebrate after his 1874 New York state guvernorship victory - even if he didn’t go on to win the subsequent Presidential election in 1876.

Lady Jeanette Spencer-Churchill, c.1874 - glamourous English socialite and Winston Churchill’s mother.

Philip Greene, in his 2016 book The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail, refers to what was innovative about this mixture:

“For the first time, an imported, fortified, aromatized wine known as vermouth modified the structure of the drink, adding balance, nuance, sophistication and sweetness to the base whiskey spirit. It launched a new era.”
— The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail

Distancing itself in this way from the whiskeys hitherto drunk as a shot in a tiny glass - seen in countless Western movies - the urbane Manhattan was not a thing to be swigged in a dusty frontier saloon but rather a fuel of the city, to be sipped in a leather Chesterfield.

The Grand Saloon in the Hoffman House Hotel, a fine example of the grand hotel bars that were home to the Manhattan cocktail. On Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets.

The most famous on-screen appearance of the Manhattan was in the star-studded 1959 rom-com SOME LIKE IT HOT with Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon. Monroe famously prepares the cocktail using a rubber hot water bottle as a shaker!


Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe in SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959)

However the Manhattan came about, it had become the most famous cocktail in the world by the turn of the 20th Century and has remained in the Top 5 ever since: epitomising elegance and offering a simple but effective balance of grain and herb, spice and fruit, purr and bite. There’s no doubt that when properly mixed it is “the only cocktail that can slug it out toe-to-toe with the Martini ” (D.Wondrich).

A Manhattan


The Manhattan’s borough brother, the Brooklyn, is a dryer version of the cocktail replacing its sweet red vermouth with dry white vermouth :

The excellent dry vermouth from Noilly Prat, made at Mèze in southern France


  • 2 pts Rye or Bourbon whiskey

  • 1 pt Dry vermouth

  • 1/4 pt Maraschino liqueur (I'm good with Giffard’s)

  • 1/4 pt Amer Picon, or a few dashes of Angostura or orange bitters

The sharp edge of the whiskey and the dry vermouth is smoothed off by the dash of sweetness from the Maraschino liqueur, obtained from distilling the Marasca cherries which give it it's unique aroma.

Amer Picon is a French amaro rich in bitter orange. So, if you can’t get it, any Italian amaro strong on orange such as CioCiaro will do fine. You can even, if necessary, use a less-orangey, but more available amaro like Campari or Montenegro, and add a good dash of orange bitters to boost the orange quotient.

Jacob Grohusko, c.1910

The first printed reference to a Brooklyn cocktail is in a 1908 book by Jacob “Jack” Grohusko entitled “Jack’s Manual”. Grohusko was born in England in 1876 to a Russian Jewish family who emigrated to New York when Jacob was an infant. He worked in hotel bars in New York until around 1900, when he found a long-term position at Baracca’s restaurant on Stone Street in Lower Manhattan. Under his direction, Baracca’s bar became a popular one. We don’t know if Grohusko invented the Brooklyn; he lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, not Brooklyn. But Victor Baracca, the proprietor of the restaurant, did live in Brooklyn, so it is possible that he asked Grohusko to come up with something to match the established Manhattan and the newly-popular Bronx.

Other Manhattan variations :

A Rob Roy specifically calls for Scotch whisky [sorry Ed.], typically a blended scotch.

A Metropolitan replaces the whiskey with cognac.

While the 2:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth is the standard proportion in a Manhattan, and a good place to start, some drinkers prefer a punchier 4:1 mix.

Next week : Continuing this theme of American whiskey cocktails, the venerable Old Fashioned - one of the earliest. Join us for another drink.


The Old Fashioned: old-school but never out of fashion.

Next week on Chrystal

Disclaimer: This article is not for commercial ends and no gratuities were received from any products mentioned herein. Chrystal 2019

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