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The Manhattan: Cocktail Classicism and Revisionism

The Manhattan: Cocktail Classicism and Revisionism

First off, I promise not to use the term “The Manhattan Project” or say “I’ll Take Manhattan” in the course of this post. I won’t even say “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” though I may burst out with a rendition of that “Man or Muppet” song from the recent Muppet movie.  It rocks. What I most certainly will do, however, is talk about this great cocktail and the many ways to find a variation of it that suits your tastes. The Manhattan may be the very epitome of the term “classic cocktail” (yes, even more so than the revered Martini), but it also serves as a foundation for endless exploration and customization. The base idea is 2 parts rye (no bourbon, please), 1 part sweet vermouth (try Dolin, try Cocchi, you will be amazed by the distinctions), a few dashes of bitters, and… that’s it. It’s simple. It’s strong. It’s balanced. It’s deep. It’s perfect, yet…

Once you’ve got the base concept down, the fun begins. The Wall St. Journal recently published a great overview of the different components and how you can mix and match them. Even just sticking with the notion of 2:1 whiskey to vermouth, you can get a lot of variation based on the particular whiskey or vermouth you use. And please don’t forget the bitters. Those precious dashes do wonders for the drink, and with all the interesting new bitters out there, you can put an interesting twist on the drink with that small component alone.(Side note: I personally prefer shaking over stirring, but you’ll find devotees on both sides of that fence.)

Bartenders have cooked up a nearly infinite number of drinks that depart from the basic Manhattan 2:1 ratio in interesting ways. My favorite variation is a relatively minor but highly impactful tweak. Cut the vermouth in half (and preferably use its close cousin, Punt e Mes), add 1/4 oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur, and you have a Red Hook. The Luxardo adds a sprinkling of magical pixie dust that elevates the drink just a notch beyond perfection. (This one goes to 11) Some call for 1/2oz of the stuff, but I think that overwhelms the balance of the drink, basically coating your tongue in that pixie dust. Not good.

One twist I hadn’t seen before shows up in this nice little video from Liquor.com and Dushan Zaric of Employees Only in New York. His spin on the drink dramatically amps up the vermouth to rye ratio, and adds in some Grand Marnier for a deep orange detour. Sounds like a trip worth taking, but calling it a Manhattan is a bit of a stretch.

You like things dark, brooding and murky? Take out the Manhattan’s sweet vermouth, use 3/4oz Averna, and you’ve got a Black Manhattan. Crisper and drier? 1.5 oz bourbon, 1.5oz bianco vermouth, and a lemon peel twist makes a Bianco Manhattan. There’s the Brooklyn, the Little Italy, the Greenpoint. If it’s a New York neighborhood, there’s probably a Manhattan variation with that name. Now whether these are truly Manhattan variations, or simply clever drinks that bear a passing resemblance to the original in one or two discrete components… that’s a debate worth having over a cocktail.

Here’s the recipe and some thoughts on my personal favorite, The Red Hook:

2oz rye (I like Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond, a tremendous value at $15-$18)
1/2oz Punt e Mes (or your favorite sweet vermouth – Punt e Mes brings a nice bitterness)
1/4oz Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur

Stir or shake over ice (I like the body that shaking provides) and strain into a chilled glass. A Luxardo cherry makes a nice garnish but is not a necessity.

Oh, and here are a few videos from Liquor.com – the one for the Employees Only Manhattan, and one for a nice Rob Roy as well (a Scotch variation on the Manhattan):

High West Breaks Out Barreled Manhattans

High West Breaks Out Barreled Manhattans

As noted a few weeks back, the “barrel aged cocktail” craze is in high gear in bars across the country. Here in Atlanta, we recently tried the barrel aged Negroni at Double Zero (delicious, if not quite as bracingly vibrant as its unaged counterpart). And, now, lucky shoppers can find a limited edition, barrel aged Manhattan on the shelves of fine spirits purveyors across the country. High West Distillery of Utah is known for pushing boundaries (note their unique blended rye, bourbon/rye blend, “silver oat whiskey,” and the fact that their proprietor, David Perkins – raised in Georgia by the way, was awarded the 2011 Malt Advocate Pioneer of the Year Award). It’s no surprise that they’ve been a trailblazer for barrel aged cocktails by the bottle, starting last year with a special 100-day-aged “U.S. Grant Centennial Celebration Barreled Manhattan” and progressing to the the version now on store shelves with the moniker “The 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan.” “The 36th Vote” commemorates Utah’s decisive vote in the repeal of Prohibition, and the notion of a Manhattan as the appropriate drink to celebrate Prohibition’s repeal is entirely appropriate given its place in the classic, pre-Prohibition cocktail pantheon.

High West was kind enough to provide two samples of their Manhattan – the barreled version which can be found on store shelves, and an “unaged” version for comparison sake. “The 36th Vote” is a mix of 2 parts High West 95% rye whiskey, 1 part sweet vermouth, and a couple dashes of Angostura bitters per serving, which then spends somewhere between 90 and 120 days of aging time in a 2 year old, American oak, rye whiskey barrel. Perkins admitted that the vermouth used was not necessarily their first choice (Carpano Antica Formula anyone?), but due to federal regulations, had to be one that they could source wholesale in bulk.

The result is a 37 percent alcohol (74 proof), high quality Manhattan in a bottle. To test out the difference of the barrel aging, we tasted these samples first without any ice (I typically like mine shaken with ice and strained into a chilled glass, but many folks prefer stirred). The impact of the barrel aging is not unexpected – it mellows and mingles the flavors to produce a rounder, fuller cocktail (even vs. a version like the one that High West provided that has been pre-mixed and sitting in a bottle, rather than freshly made). With the unaged version, the sharp notes of the vermouth and bitters jump out on the nose, then linger prominently on the finish. With the aged version, there is a softer, more integrated nose, where the rye and the vermouth seem to snuggle up together, rather than posture against each other. It simply comes across as more integrated, more lush, more happily-wed. There are no obvious notes of the wood itself; rather, it’s that little bit of breathing time that the wood barrel provides that brings the drink into a slightly greater harmony. And “The 36th Vote” is exactly that – a beautifully harmonious take on the Manhattan.

Is the barrel aged cocktail in a bottle going to be the next big thing? I don’t think so. It’s just too darn easy to make a great Manhattan at home, not to mention the fact that experimenting with various ryes and various vermouths is a great way to learn what you like best. But “The 36th Vote” is worth experiencing, worth seeking out, to get a taste of time in the barrel, and to experience a uniquely different form of wedded bliss.

High West Distillery, The 36th Vote Barreled Manhattan
74 proof
Approx. $45 retail for a 750ml bottle
Tasting Date: June 7, 2011
Good Stuff – a great way to experience the impact of barrel aging on a classic cocktail

Barrel Aged Cocktails: Ready For Primetime?

Barrel Aged Cocktails: Ready For Primetime?

Atlanta is finally seeing the barrel aged cocktail wave that has been sweeping the country over the past several months, as Iberian Pig in Decatur and sister restaurant Double Zero in Sandy Springs have rolled out barrel aged cocktails – the “Blackthorn” at Iberian Pig (gin, Dubonnet Rouge and Kirschwasser) and a Negroni at Double Zero (gin, Campari, sweet vermouth). Can it be coincidence that a restaurant by the name of Zero Zero in San Francisco also recently started serving barrel aged Negronis to much fanfare?

Barrel aging is, of course, a key ingredient in creating great bourbon, rye, Scotch, wine… and is seeing more and more use in beer as well. Its use in cocktails seems to be catching fire recently, especially in places like San Francisco and Portland and Chicago and New York, and now … Atlanta. The time in the barrel, as little as a thirty days for many of these cocktails, as many as thirty plus years for several coveted whiskies, imparts color and flavor from the wood and, often, from the spirit that was previously aged in that barrel. For cocktails, it clearly gives the ingredients time to meld, and for the lower alcohol elements (like vermouth) to oxidize and develop characteristics you wouldn’t normally find out of the bottle. See Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s blog for some interesting experiments you can even try at home (if you are adventurous and have a few hundred spare bucks to spend).

So… who has tried a barrel aged cocktail? How did you think it compared to its unaged version? Any other bars in the South doing interesting things with barrel aging? Let us know!