Here’s why the Manhattan will never be the new Martini, that poor classic cocktail whose renewed popularity (courtesy of HBO’s Sex and the City) hit a hard, bumpy bottom. If you remember, after the rediscovery of those thrilling conical glasses, there were 10 ghastly years of artificially flavored blue-tinis, pink-tinis, etc. This was a sad time for an aristocratic drink whose trinity of components ought only to include gin, vermouth, and a salty olive. Happily, the Manhattan is different from the Martini, whose clear liquor left it undefended to a thousand colorful (mis)interpretations. The Manhattan’s trinity—rye, Italian vermouth, Angostura bitters—is less vulnerable to tweaks.
Besides its russet hue, there’s the Manhattan’s rye, whose unique flavor can’t be replaced. And, no, you can’t make a Manhattan with bourbon because: 1) Bourbon’s sweetness won’t counterpoint the vermouth (which is also sweet); and 2) Rye is the New York spirit, historically distilled in the Mid-Atlantic states. When Prohibition killed the whiskey industry, it didn’t return to the Mid-Atlantic until the recent boom in local, craft-distilled spirits.
Though rye is non-negotiable, there are new ryes flooding the market that explore its spectrum of tart, peppery, and caramel notes. But don’t shake your Manhattan. Unlike Martinis, Manhattans must be stirred with ice and not shaken, which would thin the cocktail’s viscosity and cloud its gem-like hue. However, within the Manhattan’s haiku-like rules, there are myriad flavors that can be achieved. Here are some favorites:
McKenzie Manhattan at The Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean-Georges: The McKenzie Rye Whiskey is a small-batch luxuriously spicy rye bearing Christmastime flavors like gingerbread. In the cocktail, the McKenzie is stirred with Cocchi Vermouth di Torino and finished with brandied cherries.
Barrel-Aged Manhattan at Polpettina, Larchmont: I’m breaking my no-bourbon rule for this mellowed, toasty version that ages bourbon with Carpano Antica and Angostura bitters in a cute oak barrel for 30 days.
The Black Dahlia at Gleason’s, Peekskill: Stirs together citrus-hinted Redemption Rye, dark Meletti Vermouth, and Gleason’s house-made bitters.