I came to the Manhattan cocktail earlier than most. Which is not to say I was sipping from a perfectly chilled cocktail glass during high school parties or expounding on boutique vermouth varietals after my college rugby matches. Rather, my parents had a tradition, borne of having four children, which dictated they banish their progeny for an hour after my dad returned from work each night to spend an hour alone together over drinks. At some point (around the time I was eleven or so), my father got wise to the fact that having kids means a man doesn’t have to mix his own drinks. I was quickly drafted into first chilling the glasses, then fishing out the cherries and olives (my mom was – and is – a martini drinker), and, finally, mixing the drink in a 3-1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth, adding a two dashes of bitters, and shaking the whole thing until ice-cold.
I wonder what it says about me that I count this as one of my most defining childhood memories?
Over my drinking years I became and remained a steadfast manhattan drinker, and the basic recipe – if not the whiskey and vermouth – has not changed: 3 parts whiskey, a generous one part vermouth, plus bitters. However, I spend a lot of time experimenting (with many late mornings to the office offered as proof) with the particulars; which whiskey (I prefer bourbon or, occasionally, rye to my father’s choice of blended Canadian Seagram’s 7), which vermouth (Antica Carpano Formula and Vaya, from California, are both stand-outs), and which garnishes (more on that later).
Here’s the problem, though, with my admittedly hubristic attempt to create the “perfect” manhattan: I can only ever drink them at home.
I did a piece a while back over at RL Magazine on the quality of high-end vermouth, and the almost nil chance you have of finding any Stateside (you can read the rest here). Likewise, almost every watering hole around will serve as manhattan garnish the neon-red, chemical abomination known as “maraschino style” rather than the earthy, mellow sweetness that elevates a brandied cherry from mere garnish to integral ingredient.
So, that’s the rub: I want to drink my manhattans while I’m out as contentedly as I do when I’m home, but the dearth of proper ingredients (and, in many cases, proper knowledge) makes that almost impossible, even with such a simple cocktail. Or, should I say, especially with such a simple cocktail. Because while serious cocktail bars are on the rise – which is a great thing – they celebrate fresh and artisinal ingredients and pride in craftsmanship that borders on the obsessive; like, say, Thomas Keller’s French Laundry restaurant. And that’s simply not the case with your average bar. As an analogy, probably the most famous dish at The French Laundry is “Oysters and Pearls,” which is simply oysters, caviar, and warm tapioca custard. In the hands of a master, such simple yet superlative ingredients are revelatory – but I dare you to walk into a fish-and-chips shop and expect the same results with what they have on hand. Same with my cocktail of choice.
No, my manhattan experiment needs to be the equivalent of cooking peasant food – using regular (not to say cheap, but not top-shelf) ingredients and some know-how to get a great result every time, everywhere.
So, the multi-part experiment begins.
PART ONE: I CAN’T FIND AMARO – HOW’S FERNET BRANCA INSTEAD?
(Hint: Not good.)
To begin, I’m starting with Bulleit Bourbon as my base, because it’s a pretty good quality whiskey, their PR guys took great care of me back in my magazine staffer days, and, hey, it’s $20 at Trader Joes. As for the vermouth, well…
I just moved from New York a few months back, where amaro – kind of a vermouth-like liqueur which is a popular digestif in parts of Italy – was having a moment at high-profile eateries like April Bloomfield’s The Spotted Pig, Mario Batali’s Del Posto, and Keith McNally’s Morandi. I’m in Los Angeles now, and after four trips to different liquor stores, not only can’t I find a single bottle, no one seems to have any idea what the hell I’m talking about. The idea was to substitute the more nuanced amaro for sub-standard sweet vermouth, which is all that’s available here (the liqueur would also give a more interesting mouth-feel than vermouth, which is a fortified wine). But no luck, and if I can’t find it in the liquor stores it means I’m unlikely to find it in the regular bars. Well, what else, then? Fernet-Branca is sitting right here on the shelf… it’s an Italian wine-based liqueur, and the right color, and it’s also something that I’ve seen stocked behind many bars – forgotten, maybe, but stocked. So let’s give it a go.
Once I get the cap off in my kitchen, the Fernet strikes some of the same notes as a typical amaro – slightly bitter, herbaceous, with hints of licorice and caramel. But there’s also a very strong menthol flavor, almost medicinal, that’s especially noticeable on the nose. How will that fare with the bourbon and bitters? Only one way to find out...
If you read the hint above, you know the answer. The bourbon and the Fernet play some interesting music together – the aforementioned herbaceous qualities play well with the sweetness of Bulleit – but the medicinal flavors shove everything interesting to the background, and the Angostura and the Fernet are like 8-year-old twins: So alike they can’t help but fight. No good.
PART TWO: MAKE IT PERFECT
The Fernet did add some nice qualities, and was certainly interesting to my palate, but the full ¾ oz. was simply too much of a good(ish) thing. How about substituting the Fernet – a bitters liqueur – for the Angostora? And I’ll add back my regular sweet vermouth into the mix, but make the drink a perfect (half sweet, half dry vermouth) instead of going full sweet vermouth… actually, I usually have perfect manhattan when using bourbon, as the addition of dry white vermouth cuts out the cloying taste of sugary bourbon and sweet vermouth alone.
And, hey, since there’s no amaro to be had, how about subbing something interesting for the white vermouth? I re-discovered Lillet a couple of years ago after reading “Casino Royale” in anticipation of the Bond movie of the same name (yes, the Vesper cocktail Bond orders at the gaming table was invented by Ian Fleming and featured first in the book in 1953 – and, by the way, Bond originally played baccarat, not the Aughts-friendly Texas Hold ’Em). The nose has hints of the fruity, calvados- like qualities of a nice Lambic, and it’s a pleasing golden hue. Let’s do: ½ small jigger of sweet vermouth; ½ small jigger of Lillet; 3 small jiggers of bourbon, plus a couple dashes Fernet in place of Angostura.
Well… that’s close, actually. But, I have to say, the medicinal qualities of the Fernet just won’t quit, even with just a smidge thrown in. The more rounded complexity of Angostura is much preferred, especially with the citrus punch of Lillet and the lemon peel.
Ah, right – the garnish. Let me say here that I always prefer a lemon peel if brandied cherries aren’t available. And moving to CA has been great in this regard, since I have a lemon tree in my yard that produces fruit so pungent your hands smell like lemons all day just from picking one off the tree. I’m using a peel from these incredibly potent lemons in place of a cherry, which obviously swings the recipe a bit towards balancing that extra citrus.
Also, while it’s a fine drink despite the Fernet, the general acidity level and mouth-feel just don’t a manhattan make. It’s too citrus-y, too light, and certainly (because of the Fernet) too mentholated.
So, Fernet is out; Angostura is back in. What to do about the other shortcomings? Well, looking back to Jason’s post on Harvey Nichols, I picked up some Heering Cherry liqueur, a Danish libation that tastes refreshingly like my beloved brandied cherries. Let’s take the recipe above, replace the Fernet with Angostura, keep the Lillet and sweet vermouth, and add a splash of Heering to top it off.
The resulting balance is about as close to what I’m looking for as I can get with (fairly) common ingredients. It hits all the right notes: The whiskey balances perfectly with the caramel and grape tones of the sweet vermouth as well as the fruit and citrus of the Lillet; the Angostura gives a nice complexity, while the Heering adds a luxurious mouth-feel and rounds out the cocktail to a deep and mellow harmony.
3 oz. Bourbon
½ oz. Lillet
½ oz. Sweet Vermouth
2-3 dashes Angostura Bitters, or to taste
¼ oz. Heering or alternate cherry liqueur
Pour all ingredients into metal mixing cup over cracked ice; stir (don’t shake – it’s pure booze) very well with long-handled spoon for at least 30 seconds; strain into cocktail glass and garnish with lemon peel.
This recipe gets the thumbs-up from both me and my friend Craig Barritt (pictured), a talented L.A.-based red carpet photographer. Don’t think, though, that you’ve heard the end of the manhattan project. More updates soon.