This drink follows the pattern of two parts base spirit to one part vermouth plus bitters, a structure that pops up a lot. The vermouth, with its lower ABV―usually around 20%―balances out the heat from the whiskey while also providing its own complex set of aromatics, sweetness, and acidity, resulting in a relatively bright drink.
Manhattans are commonly flawed when people omit the bitters, don’t use enough vermouth, or over-dilute by shaking. But this drink has some more places to hide flaws, so they may be harder to detect. For instance, sweet vermouth has a degree of bitterness but not enough to balance the drink on its own, so while the drink isn’t garbage without the bitters, it’s also not living its best life.
The most important balance point here is between the whiskey and the vermouth. Usinghalf the amount of vermouth as of whiskey gives you enough aromatics and sweetness without making the drink too weak or overpowering the aromatics of the whiskey. With bitters, you want to use an amount that will enhance the flavor of the drink―the Angostura will give warm, spicy notes harmonious with those found in the whiskey and vermouth―but that won’t crowd out the other ingredients. Leaving out the bitters here really shouldn’t be an option.*
The Manhattan must be stirred with plenty of ice for fifteen to twenty seconds to become cold and diluted enough to be enjoyable, but not overly diluted so as to make the drink limp and flavorless. Some people like to garnish their Manhattans with an orange peel, which I find to be a bit much, considering the aromatic complexity that already exists in the drink. Two delicious Luxardo cherries on a toothpick are a nice visual accompaniment to the drink, and they impart some of their tasty liquid while also soaking up the other ingredients. Eaten right after the last sip, they are a lovely coda to the experience.
The Manhattan is super riff-able (one of the best riffs out there is the Vieux Carré), but you don’t have to get fancy. Swap out the rye with Scotch and it’s a Rob Roy; make it with Cognac and it’s a Harvard; Irish whiskey, an Emerald. Keep the vermouth and bitters and leave the measurements the same and you can also make this drink with rum, aged tequila, Japanese whisky . . . you get the idea. You can also play around with the vermouth, swapping out some or all of the sweet stuff for dry, or using sherry or Madeira if that’s what you have available. And you can work with alternative bitters or with infusing the base spirit with things like tea or spices.
* Confession: I used to be one of those asshole bartenders who would openly judge and correct guests when they ordered drinks in a way I considered wrong. I would literally refuse to call a bitters-less Manhattan by its name. I’d tell people they’d ordered a “rye and vermouth.” I’m nicer now but I will still judge you if you leave out the bitters.
Drink What You Want: Manhattan
Makes 1 cocktail
- 2 ounces rye or bourbon
- 1 ounce sweet vermouth
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters
- 1 dash orange bitters
- Garnish Luxardo cherries
- In a mixing glass or shaking tin, combine the drink ingredients. Add ice and stir for 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with Luxardo cherries speared on a toothpick.