The Manhattan mistake most people make

After years of being botched, New York’s classic cocktail is back, thanks to the revival of rye whiskey, bitters and bartenders who can put creative spins on the classic.

I ordered my first Manhattan at a work function not long after I moved to New York four years ago – probably because I felt like I was supposed to be drinking something high-class, with a stem, a garnish and local origins. A superior mocked my misguided attempt at fanciness. In response, I smiled, took a smug sip that trickled down my grey shirt and cursed the sadist who invented the martini glass.

To add insult to injury, I hated the drink. I made a note never to have another.

The atomic red pseudo-fruit at the bottom of that glass was both the literal and proverbial opposite of a cherry on top. But the drink taught me an important lesson: Manhattans are not to be ordered indiscriminately. They are to be treated like a rare steak, ordered only when both the meat and the chef can be trusted.

Back then, in the city that gave the cocktail its name, it was still difficult to find a good Manhattan. Today – thanks both to the US cocktail renaissance and the small but rapidly growing revival of rye whiskey – it’s getting much easier.

Rye whiskey, a drier, spicier whiskey than bourbon, generally makes a better base for mixed drinks, allowing astringent bitters and other strongly flavoured ingredients to mingle without overwhelming the whiskey’s taste. Never the less, many Manhattans, including the one I ordered years earlier, mix bourbon and sweet vermouth in a cocktail glass, leaving out the bitters.

In early 20th Century America, rye – made from at least 51% rye, with the remainder typically made of corn and malted barley – was the most popular whiskey. But after Prohibition’s 1933 repeal, American tastes had changed and bourbon became the whiskey of choice, while rye virtually disappeared from liquor shelves.

Today, for the first time in nearly a century, rye is popular again, mostly because American drinkers are demanding classic cocktails made according to their original recipes, and most whiskey cocktails (including the Manhattan) called for rye. In fact, many bartenders would say the only proper way to make a Manhattan is with rye.

Just as important in the quest for a better Manhattan has been the boom in quality and variety of bitters: high-proof liquors with a large concentration of herbs and other natural flavours. A Manhattan without bitters is like eating chicken with no seasoning, but thanks to the cocktail craze, bitters are bigger than ever.

I recently met friends in Manhattan for what was supposed to be a drink or two. Seven hours and three bars later, my conception of Manhattans – and of bartenders and cocktail culture in general – had transformed.

At The Growler in the Financial District, bartender Derek Brown made us, at his suggestion, three varieties of rye Manhattans: a sweet (classic), dry, and perfect, using sweet vermouth, dry vermouth and mix of the two. The varying types of vermouth — fortified, amortized wine that varies enormously in taste — made for three completely different tasting cocktails. In a classic Manhattan, the vermouth adds a touch of sweetness to perfectly harmonize the powerful whiskey and herbal bitters. The perfect Manhattan was a little too dry for my taste, and I found the dry Manhattan difficult to get down.

Down the street, The Dead Rabbit offered us other versions entirely. Bartender Jack McGarry traded Scotch and Irish whiskeys for rye, and toyed with a variety of liqueurs, bitters and absinthe. The results were more of a distant cousin to the Manhattan, with his version of a Trilby having a distinct smoky flavour from Islay scotch and the Tipperary being slightly more herbal, thanks to chartreuse. For the “Manhattan a la Dead Rabbit” he used house-made Orinoco Bitters, orange curacao and absinthe. All three drinks were outstanding, but not quite Manhattans. Though I guess that can be expected from the 2013 Tales of the Cocktail International Bartender of the Year.

Like the city itself, the Manhattan inspires innovation. Cocktail menus across the country, for example, feature The Brooklyn, a perfect Manhattan that replaces sweet vermouth with orange-flavoured Amer Picon and bitters with maraschino liqueur.

Our last stop was at the Michelin-starred restaurant Public in Soho. Before he actually gave us a Manhattan, bar manager David Roth told us that he had moved to New York after 20 years of living in Hartford, Connecticut, where he couldn’t even get a decent version of his favourite cocktail, the Manhattan. He had had enough.

“I didn’t want to be that guy who asked ‘can you make a Manhattan?’” he said. “But I became that guy.”

Now, though, avoiding any pretension, Roth didn’t pour a single Manhattan that even had whiskey, let alone rye. His idea of a Manhattan wasn’t so much that it had the traditional ingredients, but that those ingredients should be mixed well and in the correct portions: generally two ounces of alcohol, one ounce vermouth or similar substitute and two dashes of bitters – 2-1-2, he explained, just like Manhattan’s area code. My favourite of his “Manhattans” was made with an Applejack base, sweet vermouth and cinnamon-raison bitters

Roth’s idea of a Manhattan was, at least in part, inspired by Dale DeGroff, considered the father of modern bartending. At Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans, Roth told us that DeGroff once made a drink he called the Manhattan Redux and asked a group of bartenders, including Roth, to guess what was in it. They all generally agreed they really liked the cocktail, but not a single one could believe that what they were drinking was orange bitters, cynar (an Italian amaro) and vodka – often considered the black sheep of the cocktail world — a liquor some “mixology” bars refuse to even carry. Minds, Roth said, were blown.

I finished my drink, said goodbye to my friends and hopped on the train back home to Brooklyn, somehow feeling simultaneously more educated and more ignorant about Manhattan, both the drink and the island, than I was before I left.