My mom drank Manhattans. My first visceral memory of this mother sauce of cocktails was from her sharing the flavor-soaked cherry garnish of that drink with me when I was young. I can still remember the sweetness of the cherry, complemented by vermouth, cut with a bit of bitters, and the willful bite of bourbon, which was her preferred whiskey for that drink. I was hooked, and Mom had to resort to ordering her Manhattan with two cherries if she also wanted to enjoy the garnish.
Many words have been written on the origins and applications of this drink. One of my favorites is “The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail.” Authored by Phillip Greene and Dale DeGroff, it’s both a rigorous compendium and love letter to the original drink and all the myriad of variations to follow.
Another older book covering more cocktail territory but with several pages of insight on the best practices for post-war service of the Manhattan is “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks,” by David A. Embury. Published in 1948, it is clear the author drank during Prohibition and after repeal with a clear (or slightly blurry) eye on the Golden Age of Cocktails of the late nineteenth century.
Embury codifies the choice of vermouth into sweet, medium, and dry. His sweet Manhattan calls for red, sweet, Italian vermouth, while the dry Manhattan is made with light, dry, French vermouth. The medium, splits the difference, using a half measure each of both vermouths. That became known as a perfect Manhattan but Embury reserves that term for when you make a martini with split vermouths. He also recognizes that it was becoming more common to assume sweet vermouth in the recipe and that a riff was developing whereby sweet, medium, and dry could also represent amounts of vermouth, not styles.
Even though he leans toward dogma in parts, Embury is refreshingly welcoming on the choice of whiskey for this cocktail. While it’s noted that rye is the original, bourbon is touted as being to the liking of many people and that this drink can be made with a split of rye/bourbon or even Canadian whisky.
I bought my copy of “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” in a used book store many years ago in Newport, R.I. This edition was printed in 1958 and was gifted to some home bartenders by a friend with a darling inscription that they all enjoy this gift together. It also has many little pencil notes around various recipes in a different hand than the inscription. On the page dealing with the Manhattan, the word bourbon is circled and connected by a line to a drawn box next to the recipe for the sweet Manhattan. In the box is written two to one for the ratio of whiskey to vermouth, and another line connects to words summing up the connection of bourbon and two to one — it reads, “Mom was right!”
I’ll drink to that.
What you’ll need
- 2 oz. borbon
- 1 oz. sweet vermouth
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters
- Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a cherry.
Join our next virtual cocktail class
Join us Thursday, Sept. 16, at 7 p.m. for Boston.com’s Cocktail Club with host Jackson Cannon and his special guest Marsha Lindsey, principle bartender at SRV in Boston’s Back Bay. This week they’ll be making cocktails with bourbon, catching up about the Boston restaurant and bar scene, and sharing tips the pros use to make great drinks at home. They’ll be mixing the classic old fashioned whiskey cocktail and the Manhattan. Everything you need is in the shopping list here.
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