manhattan2New York City (1870s)

The Manhattan is where we start to get all fancy and what-have-you. Break out the cocktail glasses. If you don’t like whiskey, you’ll hate this one. And it could care less. Take it or leave it. The Manhattan is commonly made with bourbon, but the real authentic style is with rye. Check out how just two ingredients (whiskey and vermouth) take a couple dashes of bitters for a ride and create an amazing depth of flavor. Here’s where you’ll see why stirring spirits-only drinks makes a difference versus shaking. If you’re curious, try one shaken really hard so you can see the difference – and so you’ll know why to send one back if it’s made wrong.

Like many of our favorite drinks, the origin of the Manhattan cocktail is murky. I’ve heard stories:

  • 1846: Created by a bartender in Maryland to aid a wounded duelist (bullshit, vermouth wasn’t imported to the US prior to 1870)
  • 1860: Created by a bartender named Black near Broadway & Spring (bullshit, see above)
  • 1874: Commissioned by Winston Churchill’s mother at a Manhattan Club party celebrating the election of Governor Tilden (bullshit, she was in England at the time, eight months pregnant)

What we do know is this: vermouth hit the streets of New York City around 1870, and by 1880 it was the hot ingredient in cocktails. Taking the idea of the “improved” basic cocktail of spirit with sugar, bitters, and a touch of something extra, savvy bartenders nixed the sugar and “something extra” in favor of vermouth. They found the dry French kind paired well with gin (Martini, Turf Club) and the sweet Italian kind got along great with rye whiskey (Manhattan).

Vermouth is simply wine that’s been spiked with a spirit, usually brandy (“fortified”) and enhanced with a mix of botanical ingredients (“aromatized”). These botanicals may include wormwood, cinchona bark, gentian, cinnamon, citrus peel, lavender, saffron, vanilla, or dozens of others. Each vermouth maker has their own special blend. If you’re interested, read more about vermouth here.

The Manhattan most likely began as a 1:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth, but I’ve also seen 2 vermouth to 1 whiskey in recipe books from that time. Somehow, over the years, the Manhattan has dodged a bullet and retained its respect, only occasionally dipping to a 2 whiskey to .5 vermouth ratio. That’s still the recipe most dive bars and restaurant bars use (they also will use whatever “well” bourbon is on hand – you really need a good rye here for spicy balance against the sweetness of the vermouth).

A properly-made Manhattan is truly a thing of beauty, capturing balance and brevity in four quick sips and priming your appetite for a great meal.

THE KIT

Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Cocktail pick, Hawthorne strainer, Fine-mesh strainer
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Rye whiskey – overproof (100 or 101) stands up well (recommended: Bulleit, Rittenhouse 100, Old Overholt)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Dolin, Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi, Carpano Antica)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Angostura bitters, Cherry (recommended: Filthy amarena, Luxardo maraschino)

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.

In a mixing glass, add:

2 oz rye whiskey
1 oz Italian vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters

Add a mix of ice cubes and cracked ice to cover well above the liquid level. Stir well to blend and chill, then double-strain (to catch small bits of ice) into the prepared, chilled glass. Garnish with a cherry pierced on a cocktail pick.

negroniFlorence, Italy (1919)

A classic cocktail with a surprising number of devotees, the Negroni is distinguished by its use of Campari, the bitter-orange aperitif that is – to put it kindly – an acquired taste. But I’ll say this: once you do acquire the taste, there’s no going back.

The Negroni is a great appetite stimulant – perfect before a big dinner. It works equally well on the rocks (in spring and summer) or up (in fall and winter). You’ll want a good, sharp, juniper-forward gin here – one that won’t get beaten down by the other two bullies in the drink.

The drink has an interesting origin story: Italian-born Count Camillo Negroni had spent time in America as a cowboy and in London as a bon vivant. On his return to Florence in 1919, he asked the bartender at the Caffè Casoni for a stronger take on the popular Americano cocktail, swapping gin for soda water, and serving it up (or on the rocks). It caught on locally, and his namesake cocktail became a hit internationally. Anthony Bourdain is on record as a fan; Gaz Regan is famous (infamous?) for his “finger-stirred Negroni.”

There’s something magical about a well-made Negroni: it’s like a reset button for your day, signaling the start of a great night when anything is possible.

THE KIT

Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Cocktail glass (or Old Fashioned glass)
Spirits: London Dry gin (recommended: Beefeater, Tanqueray) or Plymouth gin
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Carpano Antica, Noilly Prat, Dolin), Campari
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange twist

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass (or Old Fashioned glass) in the freezer at least ten minutes.

In a mixing glass about a third-full with ice cubes, add:

1 oz gin
1 oz Italian vermouth
1 oz Campari

Stir well to blend and chill, then strain into the chilled glass. As an alternative, this drink may be served in an Old Fashioned glass over rocks.

Pinch an orange twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then rub the twist around the glass rim to coat. Garnish with the twist laid across the surface of the drink.

Chicago (1914)

palmettoThere’s not much to say about the Palmetto. Except to say it’s delicious and mysteriously absent from most cocktail menus. If you ask for one from a bartender who returns a blank stare, just say “it’s a rum Manhattan” and their eyes will light up.

It’s possible this drink goes back to the 1870s vermouth craze in New York City, but the first documented recipe I’ve found is in Jacques Straub’s 1914 pocket-book Drinks. Straub was the son of a Swiss distiller, and worked as a wine steward at Louisville’s famed Pendennis Club before relocating to Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. But, as David Wondrich notes in his foreword to the book, Straub was a tee-totaler. No wine, no booze. So what we have in Straub is a simple curator, a collector and distributor of data. His catalog of recipes must’ve been cribbed from the various bartenders he knew in Kentucky and Illinois – and for the most part, those recipes are still solid 100 years later.

Having said that, an adjustment to his spec of equal parts rum and Italian vermouth (1.5 oz each) to a 2:1 ratio prevents this from veering off balance. After all, the rum brings its own sweetness to the party – vermouth can take a small step back.

In the book, Straub calls for St. Croix rum; Cruzan Aged Dark Rum would be the closest widely-available version. But a tour of the Caribbean suggests even better options: try Appleton Estate V/X from Jamaica, El Dorado 8 from Guyana, or the fantastic Mount Gay Black Barrel from Barbados, which brings delicious cinnamon and vanilla notes to the drink.

THE KIT

Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Cocktail pick, Hawthorne strainer, Fine-mesh strainer
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Aged rum (recommended: Appleton Estate V/X, El Dorado 8, Mount Gay Black Barrel)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Dolin, Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi, Carpano Antica)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Orange bitters (recommended: Regan’s), orange twist

HOW TO

Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.

In a mixing glass, add:

2 1/4 oz aged rum
3/4 oz Italian vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters

Add a mix of ice cubes and cracked ice to cover well above the liquid level. Stir well to blend and chill, then double-strain (to catch small bits of ice) into the prepared, chilled glass. Pinch an orange twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then lightly brush the twist around the glass exterior. Garnish with the twist.