The Manhattan Cocktail
What’s in a name? When it comes to cocktails, an awful lot.
Take the Manhattan. Does any drink have a cooler name than the Manhattan? Oh, I can guess what you’re thinking —the Martini has a certain powerful ring to it. But that’s come about only through decades of living forever on the tongue-tip of humankind as people argued over the virtues and makeup of the drink ad nauseam. We don’t even know what the name means. A Martini is a Martini, but what or whom was it named after? It might as well be a Dr. Seuss nonsense word.
But the Manhattan — we know what that drink is named after — namely, the most sophisticated, storied sliver of the United States there ever was, the land of Broadway and Wall Street, Central Park and Museum Mile. The inventor of the Manhattan must have thought a lot of this simple mix of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters to honor it with such a handle.
Like Manhattan Island, the cocktail has gone from strength to strength over its century and a quarter of life. Of the four greatest drinks in the cocktail canon — Manhattan, Martini, Old-Fashioned and Daiquiri — it has been unquestionably the most stable and reliable. The Martini has gone through myriad changes in its time, evolving from a sweet aperitif in the 1880s to a desert-dry power drink in the mid-20th century. It has been made with gin and vodka, shaken and stirred, served up and on the rocks, etc., etc. It’s reign as top cocktail has ever been stormy.
The Manhattan, in contrast, has proven sure and steady. It began in the 1880s as an equal parts drink, half whiskey and half sweet vermouth, with a dash of bitters thrown in. And, aside from the whiskey portion increasing over the years — 2 to 1 is the typical ratio — it has remained relatively unchanged. If you want to argue about what makes the best Manhattan, you’ve basically got only two fronts to fight on: rye or bourbon as base; and cherry or lemon twist as garnish. And most Manhattan drinkers I’ve met are pretty much OK with all those choices. Maybe something about the mellowness of the cocktail leads to mellow drinkers.
True, you’ll find those that prefer a Perfect Manhattan, in which the vermouth is split between the dry and sweet types, but they are rare beasts. Advocates of the Dry Manhattan, which uses just dry vermouth, are even more unicorn-like. However, the latter does appear to have enjoying fleeting fashion in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century. One “New Orleans club-man,” writing in to The Times-Picayune in 1899, remarked, “I have heard a good deal of discussion among local connoisseurs…that Manhattan cocktails should always be made with Italian instead of French vermouth.” He went on to explain that Dry Manhattans were quite the fad among the Big Easy bons vivants, but concluded, “It is one of those nice points that good livers like to debate at length, and, of course, the last word is, after all, de gustibus.’” There it is, that evenhanded Manhattan drinker equanimity.