Drink Dok: The Manhattan cocktail offers almost infinite variations based on subtle changes

For those so inclined, the Manhattan lends itself to tinkering at home — and it's almost bulletproof at any half-decent bar.

click to enlarge The Manhattan is a cocktail that has it all. - Ron Bechtol
Ron Bechtol
The Manhattan is a cocktail that has it all.

Editor's Note: This is the first edition of Drink Dok, the Current's ongoing cocktail column.

The Manhattan is a cocktail that has it all: depth of flavor, ease of preparation, minimal and easily sourceable components. Plus, for those so inclined, it lends itself to tinkering at home — and it's almost bulletproof at any half-decent bar.

Whether out or at home, the first call to make is whether you want your Manhattan built around bourbon or rye. Bourbon is allegedly the most popular, but rye is a personal favorite due to the way its spice, herb and honey profile plays with sweet vermouth, the cocktail's second major ingredient. Angostura bitters — think of it as the drink's salt and pepper — is the third, and almost universally agreed-upon, component.

If you order the drink at, say, San Antonio cocktail spot Amor Eterno, you'll automatically get Old Overholt rye — a perfectly respectable well liquor — paired with Carpano Antica, a high-end sweet vermouth, all stirred with ice and the Angostura. The combination is killer.

I've played with higher-end ryes at home, but my current go-to for cocktails is Rittenhouse 100. It's only a few bucks more than the Overholt Straight, but also a tad more complex and proof-potent.

Here's a good baseline recipe to get you started.

Basic Manhattan

2 ½ ounces rye, preferably Rittenhouse, but hey...

1 ounce sweet vermouth, preferably Carpano Antica

2 shakes Angostura bitters

Stir with ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass—or

whatever you have at hand. Garnish with a

high-quality preserved cherry such as Luxardo, if

desired.

Normally, I hate recipes that get really specific about brand names, thinking, cynically, that the writer has been co-opted. But, pricey as they are, the Luxardo cherries are really worth it. Please promise never to use the fluorescent red ones. Or, for that matter, to muddle orange slices into your mixing glass, as was inexplicably the rage a generation ago. A naked Manhattan is better than a tarted-out Manhattan.

It's fair, though, to fiddle with the vermouth. Carpano is especially bold and unctuous, and I sometimes cut it 50/50 with a lighter version such as Martini & Rossi or the French-made Dolin Rouge. I less often do the so-called Perfect Manhattan, but there's no reason you shouldn't give it a try. The perfection here is in the equal split of sweet and dry vermouths as follows.

Perfect Manhattan

2 ounces rye

½ ounce dry vermouth, preferably Dolin Dry, but Carpano also makes one

½ ounce sweet vermouth

2 shakes Angostura bitters

Stir as above, garnish with cherry.

The logical next step is the Dry Manhattan, which uses only dry vermouth and is accordingly garnished with a lemon twist. Instead, though, let's move on to the Black Manhattan. Yes, it involves buying a bottle of amaro that you might not otherwise think you need. Trust me, you do. Using two types of bitters may seem finicky, but try it. If you still think it's too fussy after that, you can always revert back to the Angostura alone.

Black Manhattan

2 ounces rye

1 ounce Averna or other herbal but not-too-aggressive amaro

1 dash Angostura bitters

1 dash orange bitters

Stir and serve as above.

For what's basically a two-part recipe plus seasoning, it's clear that almost infinite variations are possible by just playing with the range of ryes or vermouths on the market. By and large, though, none of the tweaks will result in a change of texture or "mouth feel." Here's a hack that will do that without materially affecting the taste or aroma of the drink: add rice.

Yes, I had the same reaction. But a serious drinks magazine suggests stirring a tablespoon of raw sushi rice stirred into a Manhattan recipe, so I tried it. Amazing. Stirring an obsessive 60 times with the rice rounded off the edges of the drink and gave it a fuller-bodied texture.

There's just one word of warning before you and I both try this with every stirred cocktail in the repertoire: double strain. Rice grains in the bottom of your Nick and Nora coupe are not what I mean by enhanced texture. I speak from experience.

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