Cocktail Know-how: A brief history of the Manhattan

A great cocktail is transcendent. It is a timeless testament to its creator and a benchmark with which all alcoholic beverages can be judged. Each month I will highlight a great drink or cocktail that I believe embodies these criteria. From pre-Prohibition throwbacks to new-age infusions, nothing is off limits.

This month’s cocktail is a classy and ubiquitous throwback. The Manhattan is a bourbon lover’s dream and embodies the spirit of America. A prolific blend of bourbon, sweet vermouth and bitters, the Manhattan has a striking aroma, which fans of the drink recognize immediately. As the first drink to make use of vermouth as a blend, the Manhattan truly is the grandfather of American cocktails.

A smooth concoction that sips from a martini glass as easily as a rocks glass, the Manhattan has shown itself to be so versatile that has even begun to classify it as an aperitif. The original recipe may have been even more diverse, as one of the ingredients, Boker’s Bitters, was a favored digestif of the day.

The proprietors of The Manhattan Club argue the drink was created in their establishment for the great Winston Churchill’s mother, Lady Randolph Churchill in the 1870s. Many others suggest that rumor is a farce and that the Manhattan was originally created as an homage to the New York borough. No matter what you choose to believe, it’s clear the drink has done justice to whomever or whatever served as its original inspiration.

Mostly dormant and phased out during the vodka and tequila booms of the 21st century, the Manhattan’s glory days seemed over. That couldn’t be further from the truth, however. Like many drinks with so much history behind them, it seems everyone has a take on the recipe. From the Mr. Boston Official Bartender’s Guide to the local barkeep, measurements take on lives of their own. It is this drink enthusiast’s opinion that you don’t mess with a classic; therefore, I am sticking with the oldest recipe—that of a man named “Black,” a bartender from the 1880s who also has a stake in the creation of this legendary libation.

3 ounces bourbon
1 1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
6 dashes of Angostura Bitters (though there are many suitable variations of bitters)

Here is where things once again get a little tricky.

Some Manhattan purists insist the cocktail should be served chilled, in a martini glass. For yours truly, however, and many others out there, I prefer the beverage on the rocks or with one whiskey ice ball if your local watering hole offers them. Option A: Add all the ingredients to a shaker mixing glass. Shake vigorously. Strain into a martini glass. Garnish with a cherry, if you so desire. Option B: Alternatively add all ingredients to a shaker tin. Shake vigorously and pour into a rocks glass.