Drink of the Week: The Perfect Manhattan

The Perfect Manhattan. I was a little under the weather and teetotaling last week, and so I found myself late this weekend with a decision. I could take a week off from our little weekly get together. I could make a drink exactly once or maybe twice and call it a day…something I really don’t like to do. Or, I could fall back on a drink I frequently make that I somehow haven’t written up here before.

In the early days of this feature, I’ve naturally devoted a post to the standard Manhattan, perhaps the second most basic modern day cocktail after a Martini. I’ve also featured the little made Dry Manhattan. I’ve even indulged in a Paris Manhattan. However, while I’ve often referred to the potentially perfect Perfect Manhattan, I’ve never actually devoted a post on it until now.

There’s no excuse. While a regular Manhattan relies on the marriage between the sweetness of whiskey and sweet vermouth, and a Dry Manhattan is based on the counterpoint between whiskey and dry vermouth, the Perfect Manhattan splits the difference. When it comes together just right, it’s a beautiful thing.

The Perfect Manhattan

2 ounces rye, Canadian whiskey, or (possibly) bourbon
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1-2 dashes bitters (aromatic or orange)
1 cocktail cherry, lemon peel, or orange peel (garnish)

Combine all the liquid ingredients in your friendly neighborhood cocktail shaker or mixing glass. Shake or stir, as is your preference, and strain into a cocktail glass. Add the garnish of your choice and contemplate the impossibility of consistent perfection and the occasional cocktail that very nearly achieves it.

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I only had time to make this a few ways…and even that was partly because I kept failing and making drinks that I deemed not quite up to snuff. To put it simply, I’m currently wondering whether bourbon is really the best choice for this drink.

I’ve had great success in the past making Perfect Manhattans with good old Canadian Club, with its mild flavor and hint of rye. This weekend, I had an absolutely fantastic result using Redemption Rye, but none of my bourbon attempts quite measured up. It was perhaps unsurprising that 100 proof Knob Creek was a bit overwhelming in such a delicate concoction, but I only sorta kinda liked my results using 80 proof (and really good) Basil Hayden. Although bourbon is sweeter than rye, for some reason the drink always wound up with a bitter edge that was more acrid than invigorating.

I also messed around a bit with a choice of bitters. I have had more success in the past using orange bitters than traditional aromatic bitters, i.e., Angostura. This time, however, I decided to go aromatic, but I alternated between Angostura and Fee Brother’s kinder and gentler aromatic bitters, and I declare the bros the winners. This is a drink that calls for gentler flavors.

So, this variation on an eternal classic is nowhere near as surefire as a traditional Manhattan, but when it works, it works. The slightly sweet flavors dance across your tongue and engage with the woody complexity inherent in even a merely decent whiskey. And, if a dry Manhattan is just too dry for you, and a regular Manhattan is just too sweet, then a well calibrated Perfect Manhattan may very well be almost kind of nearly just about perfect.

  

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Drink of the Week: The Angel’s Decree

the Angel's DecreeDespite the fact that many U.S. denominations frown on booze or ban it outright, it’s nevertheless no surprise that Christian imagery has found its way into the argot of whiskey distillers based in some of the most devout regions on the planet. “The Angel’s share” refers to a certain small percentage of whiskey that seeps into the wood in barrels and usually evaporates.

It’s become a minor trend to refer to this phenomenon. A bourbon fancier’s magazine is named for it, Jim Beam has found a way to extract the bourbon back out of the wood and perversely named it the Devil’s Cut. Meanwhile, famed bourbon distiller Lincoln Henderson, previously associated with the fine brands Old Forester and Woodford Reserve, has crafted a Kentucky straight bourbon he calls the Angel’s Envy.

The booze press has been very kind to this bourbon and for good reason. It’s designed for the serious whiskey lover and is described as being ultra small-batch and super premium. By intelligent design, it’s not as smooth as some products but it mostly justifies its large, but not enormous, price (about $45.00 in most places) by being plenty flavorful. It makes for an excellent Manhattan, quite a sturdy Old Fashioned, and I imagine it would work equally well in most classic bourbon cocktails. It’s also excellent with just a little bit of soda water.

Still, there’s always room for innovation. Henderson and his colleagues finish their product in casks previously used for port, and there is a hint of the richness of the dessert wine in the whiskey’s flavor. Logically enough, port is a significant ingredient in a number of recipes they’ve developed, including the one below that’s pretty ideal for the unseasonably warm weather going on in parts of the Midwest, even if it’s actually a bit cooler than usual here in sunny So Cal. In any case, this beverage is a nice one and simple enough for any soul.

The Angel’s Decree

1 1/2 ounces Angel’s Envy bourbon
1/2 ounce port
1-2 dashes aromatic bitters
ginger ale

Combine bourbon, port, and bitters in a smallish Tom Collins glass with ice cubes and stir. Top off with ginger ale…it’s more interesting if you don’t stir it again at this point. Sip and ask for divine guidance on whether or not your soul will be safe if you try this very tasty concoction with another brand of bourbon.

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I really like the Angel’s Decree but, at the risk of sounding as if I’m in a state of heretical despair, I’m not sure it loves me. My issues with all true red wines — they make me feel, if I may use a technical term, icky — are what drove me to explore cocktails in the first place. Port is easily my favorite kind of red wine but, as I learned again this week, it’s still red and even in very small doses for me leads to feelings that are short of heavenly. That, however, should not stop you from enjoying the drink.

The good news for me is that the sweet vermouth you use in a Manhattan only looks red. (The color is mostly from the caramel used to give it’s sweetness.) I think that’s how I’ll largely be taking my Angel’s Envy. Regardless, I trust no celestial being will be in hot pursuit of my footwear as a result.

  

Drink of the Week: The Emerald

The EmeraldSay what you will about me, I am a man of peace. That is why I come to you, this St. Patrick’s Day eve, with a small suggestion. If you should, for some reason, find yourself at an actual Irish bar or pub tomorrow night, please resist the urge to order two drinks, which I will now name.

Now, I actually very much like the beverage we in the States and in England call the Black and Tan, which combines Guinness stout with Bass or another pale ale. It’s sort of the cappuccino of beer. However, as Ben and Jerry found out a a few years back, the name is pretty much the equivalent of naming a Jewish deli sandwich a Marauding Cossack. You see, just as the Cossacks weren’t known for their kindness to Russian Jews, the English Black and Tan militia men were not known for their gentleness to Irish folks during the nation’s war of independence from the British, circa 1920-22. As for the drink known as an Irish Car Bomb, let’s just leave that one alone.

Instead, may we suggest this really very nice little beverage named for the Emerald Isle. Yes, knowledgeable readers will notice a more than slight similarity with a far better known classic cocktail, but that will only make it easier to order if your barman is not familiar — and he likely won’t be.

The Emerald

2 ounces Irish whiskey
1 ounce sweet vermouth
1-3 dashes orange bitters
1 maraschino cherry (very optional garnish)

Combine whiskey, vermouth, and bitters in a cocktail shaker. Shake or stir, as is your preference, into a chilled martini/cocktail glass. Toast, preferably while listening to the Pogues, the Chieftains, the Dubliners, or Van Morrison.

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Now, yes, this is pretty obviously a slight variation on a Manhattan, but the Irish whiskey makes for a drink that goes down as easy as watching John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” on a Sunday afternoon and ordering this non-offensive drink will avoid any situations out of “The Wind that Shakes the Barley.”

As I alluded to above, it’s also a pretty obscure drink. Indeed, every recipe I could find online seems to come pretty directly from, Esquire‘s David Wondrich who, I promise, won’t be mentioned next week for a change. It’s worth noting, however, that he points out the use of orange bitters is also potentially controversial, if you know a little Irish history. I do think, however, your bartender will charitably assume you mean orange fruit and not Orangemen when you request a Manhattan made with Irish whiskey and Regan‘s Orange Bitters.

And now, some music to drink the Emerald by.

  

Drink of the Week: The Rob Roy

The Rob RoyFor the second week in a row, I’m revisiting classic variations of classic cocktails that have been mentioned here before but not fully explored. Though supposedly created by an anonymous bartender at New York’s Waldorf Hotel and named for the legendary hero of Scottish folklore, the Rob Roy is a pretty clear case of cocktail plagiarism at its finest. All it really is the Manhattan but made with Scotch rather than with rye, bourbon, or Canadian whisky. Still, as I noted in the second edition of DOTW, a Manhattan is really just a martini made with whiskey and capitalizing on the natural sweetness of rye, bourbon and Canadian whiskey, as opposed to the dry tang of modern day gin.

I also said at the time that I hadn’t figured out yet how to make a Rob Roy taste any good. It did take some time to revisit some recipes and experiment a bit with the more smokey and biting flavor of the Scottish brew in comparison to the sweeter rye and the almost-candy-like-in-comparison bourbon. Here’s the trick as I see it right now: We still use bitters, but we use them more sparingly.

The Rob Roy

2 ounces Scotch whisky
1/2-1 ounce sweet vermouth
1 dash bitters (angostura or orange)
maraschino cherry or lemon peel (garnish)

Add Scotch, vermouth, and bitters — using a light hand on the bitters — in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice. Shake most vigorously and strain into a pre-chilled cocktail class and sip, preferably while pouring over a volume of Robert Burns’ poetry.

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It’s true that the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley, and the hole in my plans was that I ran out of my beloved dry Noilly Pratt and forgot to try the dry version of the Rob Roy, which appears to be more popular than the less frequently discussed dry Manhattan. Both drinks simply use dry vermouth in place of the sweet variety and, traditionally, change the garnish from the cherry to a lemon peel or, if you’re me, an olive. If so, I would be extra careful with using Angostura bitters especially as Scotch is already a relatively harsh brew compared to North American whiskeys.

In general, though, to reiterate, the major distinction I would make between the Rob Roy and the Manhattan is that I strongly counsel being stingy with bitters on a Rob Roy, while I counsel greater generosity with them on Manhattans. Scotch is a pretty tough form of booze all on its own.

  

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