The Manhattan: Bitter About Bitters

by admin on August 11, 2008 · 4 comments

Hair of the Dog is Cookthink’s Monday morning cocktail column by Rob Chirico, the author of the Field Guide to Cocktails. Read more about Rob here.

Let’s talk about the Manhattan. First of all, how can such simple perfection be so screwed up by so many? Like the Martini, it has undergone some changes since its earliest days, but by the end of Prohibition the basic ingredients were well-established: whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters.

We’ll get into dry vermouth later, but let’s focus on the most important ingredient first — not the whiskey, which is taken for granted, but the bitters. Recently at the Blue Heron, I mixed a Manhattan for a gentleman. He remarked with pleasure that I had used Angostura bitters. I replied that it wasn’t a Manhattan without bitters; it was just whiskey and vermouth, with a cherry to add to the disguise. He, in turn, said that he had almost stopped ordering Manhattans because very few people added bitters.

Naturally, I was appalled and began some investigation of my own. Among the locals I queried who claimed that they had tended bar at some time or another, almost all concurred that they did not use bitters. Aghast, I paged through a number of basic drink guides — including that red one from Boston that everyone and his nephew’s uncle owns — only to find the omission of bitters. Even the popular Bartender’s Black Book lists it as optional.

Guess what? A Manhattan must have bitters. Dale DeGroff, Gary Regan, David Wondrich and other pros would probably fight to the death on that issue.

Now that my little rant is over, let’s look at the whiskey.

Initially, like most traditional Northern cocktails, the whiskey was rye. It was supplanted by bourbon in the South, as well as parts of the North when rye began to fall out of favor. In Minnesota and Wisconsin they have a preference for brandy Manhattans.

As to the Manhattan’s genealogy, if the mundane is your cup of tea, a saloonkeeper on the Lower East Side looked out the window of his establishment and named this preeminently classic cocktail for Manhattan Island. If your tastes tend to the more colorful, Jennie Churchill — the bibulous Winston’s American mother — hosted a party at New York’s Manhattan Club, in 1874, to celebrate the newly elected governor William J. Tilden. The anonymous bartender honored both Tilden and the club by creating a new drink for the occasion and christening it the Manhattan. (Tilden won the popular vote for the U.S. presidency in 1876, but lost in the electoral college. It makes one wonder what Al Gore is drinking these days.)

The only other story in the running attributes the drink to then-Supreme Court Justice Charles Henry Truax. According to James Villas in Villas at Table, Truax asked a bartender at the Manhattan Club to mix him up a new drink because his doctor had told him that if he wanted to lose weight, he’d have to stop drinking Martinis. (The doctor’s credentials, as far as I know, have never been challenged on the calorific qualities of Martinis versus Manhattans.)

Manhattans may be served sweet, perfect (half sweet and half dry vermouth) or dry (just dry vermouth), with blended whiskey, bourbon or, as it was originally, rye.

Recipe: Manhattan (Hair of the Dog)

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

StupendousMan August 11, 2008 at 12:23 pm

I’ve noticed many bar don’t stock bitters as well. I got into an argument with a few bartenders afterhours at a bar. They all thought I was wrong. They said bitters are not required for a Manhattan- if few even said they had never heard of using it for the drink. So I let them go on and on then asked if they had a bartenders guide behind the bar. They did, both the bartenders bible and the complete world bartenders guide. Guess what? They both listed bitters as an ingredient.

They had the grace to sheepishly admit I was correct. It was funny that none of them drank Manhattans and rarely made them but thought they knew better then a Manhattan drinker and long time mixer.

TraderVic's Ghost August 11, 2008 at 4:55 pm

Bourbon Manhattans are an abomination.

Angostura Bitters
Twist (cherries are for Roy Rogers)

LL August 12, 2008 at 6:21 pm

Woodford Manhattan, up. Thanks.

Sam Sprague November 8, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Wrong, Wrong, and wrong. Bitters are a ingredient that must be asked for! Times have changed, we don’t make our booze in a bathtub anymore. Do bartenders use the 3 to 1 ration for a martini anymore? The bartender’s blackbook, the best guide out there, does not list bitters in its recipe. Bitters are a mask from the dark ages.

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