Cocktails With MAD MEN: The Manhattan

Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris continues his excellent series on the history of the cocktails guzzled on MAD MEN.

"Everyone knows Manhattan is a cocktail. Literally, it is a mix of rye and sweet vermouth, garnished with a cherry, with its golden-brown glow and submerged bar-fruit sunset. Figuratively, it is the shaken-not-stirred mix of its people, occupations, desires and commodities: the constant movement and interchange, the ceaseless transactions of discourse, flesh, food, ideas and bodily fluids." Mark Kingwell, Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City

There is a surprising paucity of Manhattan consumption on Mad Men. Given the setting and the Manhattan’s position as a power cocktail (J.P. Morgan is rumored to have prepared and consumed a Manhattan at the close of every trading day), it seems a glaring omission. Perhaps Bert Cooper is a secret Manhattan drinker, mixing one up each day with fancy Japanese bar tools, and knocking it back with his bare feet on the desk while paging through a well-worn copy of The Fountainhead.

If the Martini is the glamorous, slightly dangerous doyenne of the cocktail kingdom, the Manhattan is its suave companion, the older man with impeccable taste, offering its arm and giving entry into the upper echelons and secret backrooms. The Manhattan came first; paving the way for the Martinez and then the Martini, and then a whole host of other spirit and vermouth combinations. One hundred fifty or so years later, the Manhattan has held on to its looks, kept its sex appeal. It still has more game than cocktails half its age.

The Tilden-Churchill Myth               

The most common story about the origin of the Manhattan goes like this: In 1874, the Manhattan Club held a banquet for newly elected New York Governor Samuel Tilden, hosted by one Jennie Jerome, who is best known for being majorly hot, a libertine and for giving birth to Winston Churchill. At this banquet, a Club bartender came up with the Manhattan. The powerful set approved and a mixological star was born.

The Manhattan Club stubbornly persisted in perpetuating this story for many years, but it has a major, major hole in it. The banquet took place at the same time that young Winston was making his entrance into the world, and Ms. Jerome was not in New York, but rather in Oxfordshire, and there is no record of rye, vermouth and bitters being present at Winston’s birth. (Tilden, a noted reformer, did go on to become the Al Gore of his day; he was the first presidential candidate to win the popular vote, but lose the Electoral College.)

A Little More on Vermouth

In the early days of Vermouth’s arrival in the United States, the red, sweeter sort was referred to as “Italian,” while the white, dryer version was known as “French.” In the earliest bartending guides that mention the Manhattan, there is no distinction made, with recipes in 1884 and 1887 calling for simply “Vermouth,” and an 1892 guide calling for simply “Vino Vermouth.” Why then the assurance that a Manhattan is made with the sweet kind?

There is evidence Italian Vermouth was the first to gain traction in the saloons of America. It was well known not just in New York, but as far afield as Texas and Iowa by the 1860s, and by 1871, Vermouth was being celebrated as long as it was “of good Italian origin and properly cooled.” And there was also this little tipple called “The Vermouth Cocktail.”

The Problem With the Old Fashioned and The Inverse Problem of The Vermouth Cocktail

Give a man an Old Fashioned, properly tricked out and based on a solid two ounces of 100 proof rye, and it will go down easy. Too easy. Knock back three or four in quick succession and even the most hardened drinker will be wobbling a shade on his barstool. The Vermouth Cocktail, debuting in the 1860s, is an attempt at rectifying this issue, keeping the barfly in place at the rail and spending coin, while also keeping him under control. But the Vermouth Cocktail, first appearing as a couple of ounces of chilled, slightly diluted Italian Vermouth adorned with a piece of lemon peel, and later fancied up with a bit of bitters and maraschino liqueur, lacks any sort of oomph at all. It is difficult to drown your sorrows in a puddle.

The natural inclination is to slip a stick of something stout into the Vermouth Cocktail and see where it takes you, and when whiskey meets vermouth and bitters, we’re on to something solid: complex, intriguing, and potent enough to satisfy, while mellow and long enough to keep rapid intoxication at bay.

William Black At Your Service

A 1923 book, Valentine’s Manual of New York, contains the recollections of one William F. Mulhall, a bartender at the famed Hoffman House from 1882 until it closed its doors in 1915. Mulhall simply states, “The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black, who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the sixties—probably the most famous drink in the world in its time.” That would of course, be the 1860s, and one William Black did in fact operate a saloon on the Bowery, but above Houston in the 1870s. Unfortunately, history has little more to say about Mr. Black.

The Manhattan Club, while they decidedly did not invent the Manhattan Cocktail to celebrate Governor Tilden and Ms. Jerome (though Ms. Jerome’s father did in fact own the building that housed the Manhattan Club) also has laid claim to the drink, with some credibility. A number of cocktails that went on to wider acceptance in the late 1800s were house drinks at various clubs—The Clover Club, The Turf Club, & The Jockey Club are three—and the Manhattan Club’s official history, written in 1915 assures, “The celebrated Manhattan cocktail was inaugurated at the club,” and a host of print accounts from the late 1800s assure us this is the case.

But by the late-1800s, the Manhattan was widely known, first appearing in a newspaper account in 1882, with recipes in bartender’s guides by 1884. Much like the Martini, we may never know from whose hands the mixture of whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters was first poured, but we should be thankful that it did.

A Note On Proportions

While the Manhattan never quite suffered the vermouth deficit that has plagued the Martini (no wags asserting here the need to simply wave the vermouth bottle over the glass or to bow in the direction of France), there is a real conversation to be had about the ratio of whiskey to vermouth in a Manhattan. The first recipe to appear in print, in the 1884 How to Mix Drinks—Bar Keepers Handbook, calls for equal parts of whiskey and vermouth, two to three dashes of Peruvian Bitters (nb, Peruvian Bitters were an advertiser in this particular book), and one to two dashes of gum syrup, a widely use sweetener in the 1800s, based around the pleasingly textured Gum Arabic. This is the way they were mixed at the Manhattan Club, though the Manhattan Club used orange bitters.

The 1887 edition of Jerry Thomas’s Bar-Tender’s Guide, calls specifically for Rye Whiskey, but with one part whiskey to two parts vermouth, three dashes of Boker's Bitters and a couple of dashes of Curacao or maraschino liqueurs. By 1892, William “The Only William” Schmidt’s The Flowing Bowl, called for two parts whiskey to one part vermouth, along with a bit of gum syrup, a couple of dashes of unspecified bitters, a dash of absinthe and an optional bit of maraschino liqueur.

All of these recipes have their virtues, in particular the 1884 and the 1892. In fact The Only William’s recipe is the first of the early recipes to take on the generally recognized proportions of the modern Manhattan. The inverse ratio of the first Jerry Thomas recipe is light, and not as satisfying, but it will do on those days were two ounces of whiskey just aren’t in the cards.

By combing some ideas from 1884 and 1887, we’re really on to something. Because equal parts of a nice rye and a good red vermouth, smoothed out with a few dashes of Boker’s or Angostura bitters and a bar spoon of Grand Marnier, stirred with ice and finished with a squeeze of a small wedge of lemon is quite nice indeed, especially on a school night.

What is this absinthe, maraschino, gum syrup business all about? 

Bartenders in the 1800s, like their counterparts today, often couldn’t leave well enough alone. The formula laid out in 1884 in How to Mix Drinks is a perfectly acceptable, delicious drink, particularly if the whiskey is good, the vermouth is fresh and the bitters are not neglected. These dashes of absinthe or small measures of liqueur are playing on the bitters’ turf here, enhancing the flavor profiles already found in the vermouth and whiskey, linking them together, lending aromatics to the finished cocktail. Feel free to use them, but they are not remotely necessary, even if they can be quite nice.

A Little More on Vermouth

The standard Martini and Rossi or Cinzano are fine for your Manhattans, but Dolin is better and Cochi Vermouth di Torino or Carpano Antica are better still. The Antica formula is alleged to be the original Italian vermouth, but both are significantly more flavorful and bold than the M&R or Cinzano, and play better with the stout flavorful whiskey you should be using. The Cochi is a better value, but the Antica comes in a liter bottle that will last longer (though the standard caveats apply here—keep your vermouth in the fridge and use a wine saver, especially if you’re shelling out for the Antica).

Do not use Gallo or Stock brands for anything other than cooking, and even then, only if you’re cooking for people you don’t especially like. As an aside, both the Cochi and Antica, mixed with soda and served tall over ice with a slice of orange is a perfect afternoon refresher.

Thoughts on Whiskey

David Wondrich, who tested “twenty-odd” pre-Prohibition recipes for Imbibe!, has noted that only four recipes specified a type of whiskey to use in a Manhattan, and of those four, two went with bourbon and two with rye. That said, in the northeastern United States at the time, “whiskey” was generally accepted to be rye, and it would have generally been in the range of 100 proof. Proof is a good guide to follow. Seek out a 100 proof rye like the excellent bottled in bond offering from Rittenhouse or the sadly discontinued Wild Turkey 101 Rye, especially if you are using the bolder vermouths like the Cochi or Antica. If your local bar or liquor store only stocks 80 proof rye (or none at all), find a Bourbon in that 100 proof range instead. You’re mixing in a goodly portion of vermouth and you need something with a high alcohol backbone to stand up to it.

Harry Craddock, in The Savoy Cocktail Book, lists four Manhattan recipes, three of which list Canadian Club as an option. Craddock, in this instance, is wrong. As with the Old Fashioned, Canadian Whiskeys are too light to carry the drink and should be avoided.

In short: 100 proof rye is best, followed by over proof Bourbon, then 80 proof rye, then lower proof Bourbon, but when you get down around the 80 proof range, start cutting back on your vermouth.

A Cherry or a Twist?

The most common garnish on a Manhattan is the ubiquitous neon red, “maraschino cherry.”  Generally, these are made by bleaching Queen Anne cherries in a salt solution, pitting them, then soaking them in a mixture of syrup and red dye.  If you must use a cherry in your Manhattan, seek out real preserved Marasca Cherries from Luxardo, or preserve your own for later use when the cherries are fresh in early summer.

That said, a nice freshly cut lemon twist, expressed over the glass, can be an excellent addition to any Manhattan, not just the so-called Dry Manhattan (made with dry vermouth in place of the sweet) or the Perfect Manhattan (which mixes dry and sweet vermouths in equal proportion) that specifically call for the twist in place of the cherry.

Things That Have No Place in a Manhattan

Irish Whiskey (this would be a Paddy Cocktail), Scotch (this would be a Rob Roy), Canadian Whiskey (this would be not good). Cherry “juice” from your jar of maraschino cherries.

Some Recipes:

The Manhattan (contemporary standard)

2 oz. 100 Proof Rittenhouse Rye
1 oz. Cochi Vermouth di Torino
3 dashes Angostura or other Aromatic Bitters

Combine all in a mixing glass with cracked ice and stir until very cold.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a lemon twist, or, if you must, a cherry.

The Manhattan (1884 Version, adapted from David Wondrich’s Imbibe!)

1.5 oz. Wild Turkey 101 Proof Rye (If you can find it, buy it and hoard it.)
1.5 oz. Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth
2-3 Dashes of Boker’s Bitters (Angostura will do and Orange Bitters are actually nice here too)

Combine all in a cocktail glass with cracked ice and stir until very cold.  Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and serve.  Finishing with a twist is good here too.

Bill Norris’ Cocktail Cherries: 

Per 1 pound sweet cherries, pitted

  • ½  cup sugar
  • ½  cup water
  • 2 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • ½ cup of Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
  •  ½  cup brandy (cheap is fine)
  1. Wash and pit the cherries. (You can leave the pits in if you like for an earthier flavor)
  2. In a saucepan, combine all ingredients except the cherries and booze and bring to a rolling boil.
  3. When the liquid begins to boil, reduce the heat to medium.
  4. Add the cherries and simmer for 7-10 minutes, until the cherries are cooked but have not lost their shape.
  5. Remove from heat, add the liqueur and let cool.
  6. Using mason jars, can as you would preserves, removing the cinnamon stick beforehand.

You will have excess liquid in the end that is a nice cherry liqueur. Bottle it and serve over vanilla ice cream or use it in cocktails and let me know how it works.

(This entire article owes David Wondrich a debt. Buy his excellent books, as he has tread this ground first.)


Previous articles:

The Old Fashioned
The Martini
The Margarita
The Mai Tai
The Daiquiri