Serious Drinking: The Manhattan

a Manhattan
a Manhattan
Flickr/Kenn Wilson

I think we can all agree that a summer cocktail's main reason for existence is refreshment. Fall cocktails, though, are a little more complicated. Like the season it's a category of drinks that falls to a more nocturnal hue. Amber, oak-aged spirits play a central role in the repertoire, perhaps reflecting the burnished late-season skies.

Come autumn, Manhattans are my go-to drink, the famed cocktail conceived for a presidential rally of which the only thing worth remembering is the borough where it was held. I'm guessing we'll revisit this classic several times in these pages, if only because I love them; they're one of the cocktails that serve, for me, as a functional barometer for a bar, to wit, if you can't make a decent Manhattan, you'll see no more of me, thank you very much.

The problem with this dictum is that Manhattan fashions are as myriad as, well, Manhattan fashion. In its original form, the drink is simple enough: equal parts bourbon, and red vermouth, stirred in ice and released, finished with a splash of bitters and the inevitable, and occasionally unfortunate, maraschino cherry.

But there are dreamy variations like the Fanciuli, which swaps bitters with Fernet Branca; and not so dreamy ones like the Brooklyn, involving Maraschino liqueur and orange-tinged Amer Picon, which results in a drink that tastes a bit like bourbon and Fruit Loops. After a period of drying out in which the cocktail style literally chased after Martini drinkers, Manhattans have lately gotten sweeter, an unfortunate trend, made worse by gloopy bourbon variants flavored with vanilla, honey, or maraschino cherry.

As we've seen with vodka, bastardizing a classic spirit is a very slippery slope. I'm here to say that if your Manhattan is made with a honey- or cherry- enhanced whiskey product, then you may as well be drinking a Jack and Coke and I want nothing to do with you.

In fact the best Manhattans these days take advantage of cocktailians' new interest in American Rye, from the likes of Bulleit, Templeton, Rittenhouse and High West. Rye is sharper and more high-toned next to your average Bourbon. A Bourbon Manhattan envelops the palate; Rye tightens up the drink nicely, brings a sharp edge to the burnished richness of red vermouth.

As for the cherry -- all well and good, but please god not those lurid red fruitcake stuffers. If you can find a infused cherry that actually tastes like fruit and not candy, so much the better, like those from Luxardo and Mezzetta, which retain a bit of sourness in the fruit. Or substitute an orange twist -- and a dash of orange bitters.

Patrick Comiskey, our drinks columnist, blogs at and tweets at @patcisco. Want more Squid Ink? Follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook.


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >