Friday, June 19, 2009

The Perfect Manhattan

Jed Bartlet: Can I tell you what's messed up about James Bond?
Charlie Young: Nothing.
Jed Bartlet: Shaken, not stirred, will get you cold water with a dash of gin and dry vermouth. The reason you stir it with a special spoon is so not to chip the ice. James is ordering a weak martini and being snooty about it.

-The West Wing

“I hate to break it to you, but you're ordering the wrong drink and being snooty about it.”

-Abram Harrison

Not that I believe in such things, but if I believed in reincarnation I’d be convinced that in a past life I was born in Louisiana, and probably in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. I’m a sucker for anything Cajun/Creole, and I love me a good classic cocktail. I appreciate a bartender who still enjoys plying his craft, believing that there’s something to be said for mixology; a good bartender takes pride in his drinks, his methodology, and his presentation. My idea of a perfect bar is one that looks like it was built in the 1920’s and has a bartender who acts like he was time-travelled out of that era. And while I have been known to have my fair share of new-wave drinks - margaritas, foofoo drinks and other sickly sweet concoctions - given my druthers I’ll take a Manhattan.

Or, to be more specific, a “very dry Maker’s Manhattan up.”

To break that down, the “Maker’s” is the type of bourbon – Maker’s Mark. The “up” means in a martini glass sans ice, as opposed to on the rocks. And the “very dry” means, well, it does not mean what I think it means – maybe.

Cocktail making in America, which is quickly becoming a lost art, has always been subject to interpretation. The origins of many drinks are not well documented, and thus many theories abound. The Manhattan itself has at least 3 different histories, one that includes a banquet for Winston Churchill’s mother and a banquet held in Manhattan. The story I had always heard was it was that it was created for a drunk patron who’d had one to many martinis (made with gin which is a clear liquid) and wouldn’t notice if it was made with bourbon (which is anything but clear).

Regardless of its origins, it’s generally agreed that a Manhattan involves 3 ingredients – whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters. From there things get a little interesting. The first question is the type of whiskey. About the only thing that seems to be agreed upon is that it should be one that’s made in North America, but it could be rye (which is apparently the traditional choice although is generally unavailable in most bars), bourbon (my choice) or Canadian whiskey (which I can’t even imagine). The sweet vermouth is generally not an issue – you’re basically always getting the standard Martini & Rossi. The bitters are generally Angostura, but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve witnessed a bartender actually add bitters to the drink.

The next big question is the proportions of whiskey to vermouth. Depending on who you talk to, it should be a 4 to 1 ratio, although there are some who say it should be no less than 3 to 1 or even 2 to 1. I’d say generally if I went up to a bar and just ordered a Manhattan I’d get a drink mixed at a 3-1 ratio. That’s way too much vermouth for me. While I love bourbon, the reason that I enjoy a Manhattan is because the vermouth takes the edge off, making it a more relaxing after work, before dinner kind of drink; straight bourbon with a splash of water is great for after dinner, not before. I find that anything higher than about 4-1 and all I taste is the vermouth.

Which leads me to ordering a “very dry” Manhattan. Abram emailed me this article today, which discusses the concept of a dry Manhattan. “Dry” when discussing a martini means very little vermouth, which is what I’m looking for. But when it comes to a Manhattan, dry means the drink should be made with dry vermouth and garnished with olives. Now I can’t imagine ruining perfectly good bourbon by tossing in a couple of olives[1], and fortunately I’ve never received that drink. In my experience I’ve been asked a couple of times if I meant dry vermouth, but generally I get the drink that I’m looking for. At the end of the day, my saying “dry” has successfully communicated my point, which is the reason that language exists[2].

The simple fact of the matter is that at the end of the day everyone has a different interpretation of what a particular drink is supposed to be. For me the perfect Manhattan is made with Maker’s at about a 4-1 or 5-1 ratio, a dash of bitters if available, and garnished with a Maraschino cherry (which is to sit at the bottom of the glass until the end, allowing it to soak up the bourbon goodness). And so from here on out it will be:

“Maker’s Manhattan, up, splash of vermouth”

As for the snootiness, well, that I can’t help. If you’re ordering a drink that takes more than 3 words to explain you can’t help but sound snooty[3]. But now I know I’m going to be clear and get what I want.

Post script – in my research I came across this article, which is a great overview of the “king of cocktails”. And by the end of it I realized that I need to take a trip to San Francisco touring all the bars mentioned and trying the Manhattans in each.

[1] One could argue that the bourbon was already ruined by chilling it and adding other ingredients besides water, and I wouldn’t necessarily argue that point.

[2] Well, that and to woo women.

[3] Before you look down your nose at me, think about how long it takes you to order your drink at Starbucks.

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