In my younger days at daily newspapers, when I walked through my days having made a down payment on a fight, I once argued it out with a source in Alcoholics Anonymous. I took issue with the program’s religious component, which I thought was some bullshit for anything that a court could sentence a citizen to if they got caught behind the wheel after a few too many. My source, who had handled people in the depths of all kinds of binges and who could certainly handle a 22-year-old with a chip on his shoulder, gently explained to me that you needed a higher power but it didn’t have to be capital-G God. He couldn’t care less if you turned your life over to your Cocker Spaniel or your toaster oven. But you needed a guiding star.
This brings me to the business of drinking, and why you should adopt a form of this wisdom as long as you are working the opposite side of the street as my teetotaling friend. You need a signature cocktail. Not to impress people or as a substitute for a personality, as you might be convinced if you’ve spent a lot of time in the glossy pages of consumer porn, but as a port in a storm of subpar bartenders, a familiar refuge in a shifting land. And like my friend in rehab I could care less if your Higher Power is a Mai Tai, a gin rickey, or a martini, but you do need one. My Matthew 21:22, it turns out, is a mean Manhattan.
I first saw the light in a small bar in Kansas City that advertised a half-off-whiskey night. The cocktail menu was a roster of fashionable chaff, so I went with an old standby. The bartender replied that he had no idea how to make a Manhattan. Rather than move along, he tried to blame me for his shortcomings as a mixer: “No offense, man, but that’s an older crowd’s drink. My grandmother would maybe order it.”
Once my sight returned, I realized he was entirely right. My grandmother would be more likely to order it, because our grandparents actually knew how to drink. Did my grandmother learn to handle her cups by suckling at the sugary tit of Smirnoff Ice? Did she ever order a gluten-free Mike’s Hard Cider? The intended insult served only as a damning indictment of our own weak-livered culture.
It was then that I started to order Manhattans as a way of stress-testing unfamiliar bartenders. It’s a classic drink with enough variation in ingredients and preparation that to make one is to reveal yourself. When I drink yours I know whether I can order something more advanced, or if I’m better of making it a Budweiser night. This is why it would behoove you to get your own baseline recipe down with care and practice, a yardstick to judge your bartender’s tastes against your own.
Like the island’s area code, you want your proportions in 2-1-2. Two shots bourbon or rye, one shot sweet vermouth, two generous dashes of bitters. Purists will tell you that the drink should be made with rye only, but I say a bourbon with a high rye content like Basil Hayden’s is perfectly acceptable. Maybe the oldest recipe, in David A. Embury’s classic Six Basic Cocktails, calls for five parts American whiskey to one part sweet vermouth to one dash of Angostura bitters, so we’ve been messing with the base from the start.
More than the ratio, the Manhattan’s taste will be effected on how you mix it. Do not, I repeat, do not shake your Manhattan. Do not be these guys.
If you ignore this advice, prepare for your Manhattan to leave the shaker into your glass clouded and frothy. Maybe this is to your taste, I don’t know you. Maybe you don’t want a cocktail, maybe you want to drink the angry sea.
There are drinks you shake and drinks you stir. The Manhattan is a drink you stir. My advice, do it like this guy. You see how he’s holding the stirring spoon steady between his fingertips, letting his wrist do the work? You want to roll that wrist like a belly dancer. Round and around and around for about 60 seconds or so.
Secondly, make sure all your ingredients are of similar quality. Too often I’ve seen a good Templeton Rye ruined by a discount vermouth. This is the equivalent of hiring Dave Grohl and Josh Homme to start another band, only to saddle them with Peter Criss on drums. Your cocktail is only as strong as its weakest ingredient.
The more bitters the better, but don’t think you have to be tied down to Angostura. Orange bitters are an excellent twist. The proper move is to not be a coward. Shake the shit out of that bottle whatever it is. Garnish with an orange slice if you use Angostura, a cherry if you use orange bitters.
2 parts whiskey
1 part vermouth
Heavy dashes of bitters
Stir over ice for 60 seconds
But again, this is just the yardstick that I’ve found most helpful in my life to my tastes, as I find myself confronted with faceless men with stainless steel shakers at every turn. In the end, the perfect way to make a Manhattan is just that you make a Manhattan.