Smoke and Mirrors: the Murky Origins of the Classic Manhattan, and a Modern Twist

Chris Cuestas of Torch Cigar Bar unveils his smoked Manhattan.
Chris Cuestas of Torch Cigar Bar unveils his smoked Manhattan. Jeff Noble
A Manhattan is one of those drinks that immediately makes me feel like a person of authority, at least where cocktails are concerned. There is nothing frou frou about it, and it’s not for the faint of heart. While it isn’t my favorite sip, I find myself drawn to it in settings with leather armchairs, exposed wood, and gravitas.

The Manhattan dates back to sometime in the mid- to late 1800s, its origins and ingredients hotly debated so many years later. Some credit the drink to a bartender named Black, while others insist that it was invented at the Manhattan Club. The most standard recipe calls for two parts rye, one part sweet vermouth, and two dashes of bitters. The drink is served up (in a martini or, more traditionally, a coupe glass), and it’s garnished with a cherry or a lemon twist.

With such a long history, it’s not surprising that bartenders have found many ways to mix up their Manhattans. Some stir, while others shake. Some insist on Canadian whisky, rather than rye, for an authentic Prohibition experience. Some play with different bitters, choosing Angostura, orange, or something house-made. Others go even further.

One such person is Chris Cuestas, bartender at Torch Cigar Bar on High Street near Scottsdale. He started with a relatively small change — bourbon, instead of rye — but that was just the beginning. He was planning to draw inspiration from his surroundings for his spin on a classic. “It's a cigar bar, there's smoke everywhere,” Cuestas says. “I noticed, during the cigar process, I would have an abundant amount of cedar leftover. In my head immediately, I'm like, ‘smoked cocktails.’”

It took about a month and a half of steady work for Cuestas to get the drink right. Originally, he thought about smoking an Old Fashioned, but then moved to the Manhattan. When cedar didn’t produce the right results, he looked elsewhere. “I got a whole bunch of woods and went really nerdy with it, trying to find the right balance of smoke versus cocktail. Finally, I came up with bourbon-soaked oak and the Manhattan with bourbon.”

Cuestas achieves the smoke using a small kitchen smoker, used by chefs on garnishes. After he makes the drink for a guest, he covers it with a vase so his patrons can see the smoke build. “You get to see the vase fill up with smoke,” says Cuestas. “Then, all of a sudden, the Manhattan disappears and you just have a vase of smoke.” At a carefully calculated moment, to prevent over-smoking, Cuestas will lift the vase, revealing the drink, which still has wisps of smoke trailing. “It's a pretty cool show,” says Cuestas.

The Smoked Manhattan isn’t on the menu at Torch (though the rise in popularity has Cuestas thinking about adding it), rather, it’s part of the time-honored tradition of a secret menu, something special a bartender can whip up for regulars or those looking for something new and different. “With me, as a bartender, there's always a secret menu,” says Cuestas. “There's always something new going on in my mind.”

Ask for Cuestas’ Smoked Manhattan at Torch Cigar Bar (approximately $10 depending on bourbon), or try making your own with the recipe below (shake or stir liquid ingredients together, pour into a martini or coupe glass, garnish, smoke, and serve).

Torch Smoke-Infused Manhattan

2.25oz Woodford Reserve
.50oz Down’s Tawny Port
1 barspoon maple syrup
dash of Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters
Infused with smoke inside Torch glass capsule
Presented with a Luxardo cherry
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Although she started out in the wine industry, Cara Strickland was converted to cocktails by a Corpse Reviver No. 2. Now, you’ll rarely find her far from a Hemingway Daiquiri, Last Word, or Water Lily.