Next Monday, Sept. 21, the Manhattan Experience—a country-wide search for the perfect Manhattan cocktail—comes to NYC. In it, five drink-makers will present their attempts at whiskey-and-vermouth improvement to a panel of judges, including the legendary Dave Wondrich—author, Esquire mixologist and general alcohol sorcerer. To ramp up for the event, and also because Manhattans happen to be our favorite cocktail, we talked with Dave about how to make them, when to drink them and where to order them. (The quick answers: well, now and almost anywhere.)
Can you give a brief history of the Manhattan?
It probably dates to the Manhattan Club, which was a social club for rich Democrats at Fifth Avenue and 15th Street in the 1870s. There's a whole legend of how it was invented by Winston Churchill's mother and served at a banquet, but that's absolute hooey.
In your opinion, what's the recipe for an ideal Manhattan?
I like two ounces of whiskey—at least 90 proof—and I like rye or bourbon. I used to be a rye fanatic, but I did a lot of blind tastings and found the most important thing to be the proof, and that bourbon works just as well. And then an ounce of red vermouth, a couple dashes of bitters and a lemon twist. A dash of absinthe is very sporty indeed, which is something they used to do back in the day.
And what's the commonest way of making it wrong?
Putting in too little vermouth. People think it's like a martini, so they'll put in just a splash of vermouth, but that means the drink will be too strong and imbalanced. Then they'll dump in cherry juice from the maraschino jar to compensate, and you've got a truly sick drink.
If I've got all the standard ingredients at home—decent bourbon, decent vermouth, bitters and a shaker—what are one or two cheap(ish) and easy things you'd recommend I buy or do to improve my resulting Manhattan?
The easiest things to do are to measure everything and to stir it—don't shake it. Stirring it gives it a really rich and silky texture. Shaken Manhattans don't taste bad, but it's a texture thing. Oh, and a lemon twist instead of a cherry. Make sure to spray the oil [from the rind] on the surface of the drink, so the first thing you get is this bright lemony flavor on your nose with the whiskey beneath.
Do I need a fancy bar stick to stir with, or...?
You can use a chopstick. A bartender couldn't get away with it, but it's fine to use at home—and the ice won't be coming out of the shaker. Use a lot of ice and just waltz it around.
Best place in NYC for a good Manhattan?
It's an easy enough cocktail that some of the old-time places will make a good one, like I'll go to Bill's on 54th Street in Midtown, which is just a wonderful old speakeasy bar. I might not go there to ask for some complicated modern confection, but they make a lovely Manhattan, and the surroundings can't be beat.
Are there any special occasions that particularly call for a Manhattan?
OK! I usually order Manhattans in a rocks glasses since I hate martini glasses, but that's probably a terrible habit. Is there "right" glassware for the Manhattan?
I do like it in the stem glass, but preferably not the standard martini glass because it spills so easily. A coupe with rounded edges, however, keeps the liquid where it belongs.
What kind of appetizers go with a Manhattan-centric cocktail hour?
In terms of appetizers, the Manhattan is a little too sweet for oysters, unless they're fried. If they're fried, that would be amazing.
Photo by Nicholas Noyes