Prohibition-era cocktails are absolutely booming in popularity right now, so it should come as no surprise that curious drinkers are looking for easy-to-craft period-style cocktails to try and learn. The manhattan has a lot going for it to the novice mixologist: it’s delicious, it looks lovely, and it’s very easy to make. If you’ve ever had a manhattan in a bar or a restaurant and want to try your hand at making your own, follow along!
To start, let’s gather our equipment together. A typical manhattan is served in a cocktail glass (same thing as a martini glass), though there are plenty of establishments that serve theirs in a more simple highball or even rocks glass. The stem of the cocktail glass will keep your fingers from warming your drink; this is important because the best manhattan is served ice-cold. Other than the glass you’re going to serve your drink in, you need a mixing glass and a strainer.
In the glass, a manhattan is a mix of bourbon or rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a maraschino cherry. This is the real meat of the manhattan experience; with so many different styles of whiskey and vermouth, you can suit the drink to your own taste, or the taste of whoever you’re serving to. Let’s go through each of these in turn.
First up, you have to answer the age-old mixologist question: bourbon or rye? With the popularity of the ‘authentic’ manhattan, there are those who would scoff at anything other than rye whiskey, which was how the drink was made in the 1870s when it was first invented. Bourbon will make your drink sweeter, since the corn used to make bourbon is sweeter than the rye used to make rye whiskey. Considering you’re adding sweet vermouth and a cherry, the addition of a sweeter bourbon like Maker’s Mark might be overkill, but on the other hand if you’re just getting into mixology, you might be looking for a sweeter drink. If you decide to go with bourbon, the vanilla candy of the aforementioned Maker’s is a popular choice, as are the more balanced tastes of Four Roses or Eagle Rare. If you want a more rugged, traditional rye manhattan, Bulleit is a popular, inexpensive choice, and if High West has made a bad whiskey, we haven’t yet tried it. Of course, if you want a truly flawless manhattan, WhistlePig is a pricey but excellent choice: 100% rye, dry and spicy, which will imbue your drink with pepper and subtle cinnamon.
So you have your whiskey, now what about vermouth? Vermouth is Italian wine, fortified and imbued with all manner of bitter herbs and roots, like a cross between a port and an aperitif liqueur. You use dry vermouth in martinis, and sweet vermouth in manhattans (with the exception of variants like the dry manhattan and perfect manhattan, which we won’t delve into in this post). If you’ve already picked up the WhistlePig, do yourself a favor and complement it with a bottle of Carpano Antica vermouth, which is complex, cola- and chocolate-sweet while at the same time herbal and bitter. It’s perfect for a manhattan, and not bad on its own before a meal. Other choices, depending on the whiskey used, could be Punt e Mes, which is darker and richer and bolder than most other sweet vermouths, and the lightly sweet, anise-tinged Maurin Red. And when you’re done with mixing for the night, don’t forget that vermouth is a wine and can spoil, so keep it refrigerated to make it last longer.
What about bitters and a cherry? For bitters, the traditional Angostura bitters work perfectly, just a couple dashes to bring out the bitterness of the whiskey and the vermouth and give your drink a few more layers to contemplate. Woodford Reserve has made a series of bitters designed just for manhattans, as well. Its cherry bitters could be perfect for a bourbon-based cocktail. For a cherry, Luxardo’s claim as one of the innovators of the maraschino cherry is something to consider; if you don’t mind spending a lot on a bottle of cherries they really are delicious. Otherwise, simple Bing cherries aren’t so overwhelmingly sweet as others, and of course Woodford has you covered for specialty cocktail cherries, as well.
So you have all of your ingredients? Then let’s put everything together! The typical manhattan uses a 2:1 ratio for whiskey and vermouth, though your mileage may vary if you want a little more of a kick from the whiskey, or a little more sweetness from the vermouth. In addition to the vermouth and whiskey, add 2 or 3 dashes of bitters, to taste. Before you start mixing, chill your cocktail glass and your mixing glass in the freezer for 15 minutes or so, then put the whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, along with plenty of ice, into the mixing glass. Stir, don’t shake, to mix; like gin, whiskey can bruise easily, which will leave your cocktail muddled and rough. Chilling your glassware should make sure that your drink stays cold without the need to shake. Strain the concoction from the mixing glass to the cocktail glass, garnish with a cherry, and you’re done! It’s a couple of brief minutes of work to create one of the tastiest, easiest cocktails there is.