Build Your Best Manhattan
April 15, 2021 –––––– Jeffery Lindenmuth
The Manhattan cocktail—a simple recipe of American whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters that predates the Martini—yields myriad combinations to suit almost any whiskey lover. “I'm very choosy, first, about which rye—yes, rye—works best. Bourbon is too soft for me in this drink,” says Charles Cerankosky, co-owner of Good Luck, Cure, and Jackrabbit Club in Rochester, New York. However, many enjoy bourbon just fine, especially when matched with the right vermouth to balance its sweetness with bitterness and acidity. In fact, almost any style of whiskey you enjoy can shine in a Manhattan.
The modern Manhattan ratio is 2:1 whiskey to vermouth, but the original skewed the opposite, with twice as much vermouth as whiskey. Try this lower-proof rendition well-suited to summer—or find your sweet spot somewhere in between. When these ingredients meet with ice, it's hard to go wrong.
How to Make a Manhattan
- 2 oz. whiskey
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Cocktail cherry or citrus peel for garnish
Combine whiskey, vermouth, and bitters in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with cherry or orange peel, expressed over the glass.
⇒ Tweak your technique. “Do not shake a Manhattan! It's messier than it needs to be, especially at home, and a spirits-only based drink like this deserves stirring only,” says Cerankosky. You can stir in almost any container, as long as you have a strainer to hold back the ice. Cerankosky says a pie server, large salad fork, or even a Keurig tray work well in a pinch.
4 Key Elements for a Manhattan (Besides Whiskey) & How to Hack Them
1. Ice: Use fresh ice—and lots of it, advises Cerankosky. “If you stir with too little ice, a greater amount of that ice must melt to sufficiently lower the temperature,” It sounds counterintuitive, but too little ice waters down a drink faster.
⇒ No need for ice if you plan ahead. For a foolproof Manhattan, Jordan David Smith, spirits director at The Backroom by ODO in New York City, says you can skip the ice altogether. Instead, add 1 oz. water per drink. “Give it a quick stir and stick everything in the fridge for an hour or two. Perfectly chilled, perfectly diluted.”
2. Sweet Vermouth: Manhattan drinkers are as fanatical about their vermouth as they are their whiskey. “As an ingredient, it's bringing a lot to the table: sweetness, acidity, weight, tannic structure, and botanical depth,” says Smith.
⇒ In vermouth's absence, look to other fortified wines. Tawny port, oloroso sherry, and madeira can all yield a tasty Manhattan variation. When using these in place of vermouth, reduce the amount to ¾ oz. and up the whiskey to 2¼ oz., says Smith. A fruit-forward red wine or even grape juice can do the job by adding extra bitters for balance.
3. Bitters: While Angostura bitters are the classic, the third ingredient in a Manhattan offers more variety than ever before, with boutique bitters that accentuate cardamom, grapefruit, chocolate, or even rhubarb. You can also combine multiple varieties.
⇒ Or whip up a substitute with baking ingredients. Making proper bitters takes time, but an àla minute preparation will lend the requisite olfactory flair. James Arsenault, director of food and beverage at Harbor View Hotel in Edgartown, Massachusetts, suggests combining baking spices like cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg with finely diced orange and other citrus peel, and 2 to 3 tablespoons of dark rum. “When the taste is to your liking, strain it and you can use the concoction for your at-home bitters!” he says.
4. Garnish: The maraschino cherry may be an icon of the Manhattan, but its sweetness lends little to the drink. “A nicely-trimmed, wide, pithless plank of lemon peel, rubbed around the rim and twisted over top before being dropped in, does it for me,” says Cerankosky.
⇒ Or try something non-traditional. Deep, layered flavors offer lots of inspiration for creative garnishes. Meaghan Dorman of Dear Irving on Hudson in New York City suggests the complementary flavors of a square of dark chocolate or a cinnamon stick. Diving deeper into the spice rack, bartender and instructor on MasterClass Ryan Chetiyawardana prefers a bay leaf or a sprig of rosemary.
What Whisky to Use?
The classic dilemma of the Manhattan is bourbon or rye. Within these styles exists a lot of nuance. Chetiyawardana often takes the middle ground with a high-rye bourbon. “I like the corn sweetness over a straight rye—but currently I'm on wheated bourbons with a little extra age on them to give a balance of sweetness, creaminess, and wood spice,” he says.
Sweet & Bold
Larceny Straight Bourbon—90 points
Larceny Barrel Proof Bourbon—95 points
Four Roses Small Batch Straight Bourbon—88 points
Wild Turkey Rare Breed Straight Bourbon—90 points
Sweet & Soft
Woodford Reserve Distiller's Select Straight Bourbon—89 points
Maker's Mark Straight Bourbon—89 points
George Dickel Barrel Select Tennessee Whiskey—91 points
Buffalo Trace Straight Bourbon—88 points
Spicy & Bold
Old Forester Straight Rye—88 points
Old Overholt Bottled in Bond Rye—93 points
Rossville Union Straight Rye—90 points
High West Double Rye!—91 points
Spicy & Soft
Basil Hayden's 10 year old Straight Bourbon—89 points
Bulleit 10 year old Straight Bourbon—91 points