While looking through all the Last Call columns I've done, I was somewhat taken aback that I'd been writing about cocktails for this long and have yet to discuss a cocktail cornerstone, the Manhattan. It's a very elegant cocktail; it has only three ingredients, but its flavor is almost infinitely complex.
With so much complexity, it's no wonder that there are almost as many ways to make Manhattans as there are bartenders. So many bartenders out there half-ass the drink to the point that what they call a Manhattan is virtually indistinguishable from straight whiskey on the rocks. Not that there's anything wrong with whiskey on the rocks, mind you, but I'll save that for when I'm out at one of my favorite sleazy dives. In the meantime, let's make a Manhattan to knock your socks off.
Sharp-eyed observers will likely note that the Manhattan follows the same formula as the martini: Base spirit, plus vermouth, and a dash of bitters. There is a good bit of difference between the two regarding proportions. When it comes to martinis, drinkers usually have a preferred gin-to-vermouth ratio, and it doesn't vary much from one gin brand to the next. Whiskeys, though, have a much wider range.
Top-flight bartenders know that there are dramatic variations between one whiskey and the next and adjust a Manhattan's proportions to suit the whiskey. For example, Maker's Mark is a much mellower whiskey than most ryes. So, I use a lot more vermouth (and an extra dash of bitters) in a Bulleit Rye Manhattan than I would in a Maker's Manhattan.
How much of everything should you use when making a Manhattan? I start with two parts whiskey to one part vermouth, plus two dashes of bitters for every shot of whiskey. Yes, it's a hell of a lot more vermouth than most bartenders use. One of these days, bartenders everywhere will finally realize that it's okay to use vermouth in cocktails! From there, I'll dial it down to a 3:1 ratio for mild whiskeys, and up to 3:2 with an extra dash of bitters for stronger whiskeys.
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Once you have the basic Manhattan down pat, it's one of the drinks that is the most rewarding when it comes to playing with variations. You can use other whiskeys; use scotch and it becomes a Rob Roy. You can also make a Perfect Manhattan by using half sweet vermouth, and half dry vermouth.
Of course, you can try different bitters, especially with the ongoing bitters renaissance. I find that orange bitters are especially enjoyable. You can even get a little crazy and use bitter liqueurs in place of bitters. Campari . . . Absinthe . . . maybe even a Manhattan with a touch of Fernet Branca? Don't mind if I do. Manhattan 1 ½ ounces American whiskey ¾ ounce sweet vermouth (adjust to ½ ounce or 1 ounce as desired) 2 dashes Angostura bitters (plus extra as desired)
Stir well with ice cubes. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass, or over fresh ice into a rocks glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry.