Celebrated cocktail historian Gary Regan once remarked that the mark of a worthy bartender “lies solidly in his or her interpretation of the Manhattan.” Indeed, crafting a perfect Manhattan may seem deceptively simple, with only three ingredients—whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters— yet to make this drink requires years of expertise.
Why, you may ask. To begin with, the simple act of stirring plays a pivotal role; too much, and the cocktail becomes watery, too little, and it remains warm. Striking the right balance in vermouth is equally crucial—if there's an excess, the drink turns sickly sweet. Further, it is key to use premium quality ingredients to make a Manhattan. Anyone who has sampled a Manhattan made with inferior whiskey or subpar vermouth understands the significance of using top-notch components. The Manhattan, in its simplicity, becomes a canvas for showcasing the craftsmanship of the bartender and the excellence of each ingredient.
The origins of this timeless classic are deeply entrenched in ambiguity, much like most other classic libations. But one of the earliest documented versions of the cocktail can be found in William Schmidt’s 1891 book, The Flowing Bowl- What and When to Drink: Full Instructions How to Prepare, Mix and Serve Beverages. This early rendition called for gum, bitters, absinthe, whiskey, and vermouth.
It predates other cocktails featuring vermouth, including the Rob Roy, Martini, and the Martinez.
One of the most enticing versions of the Manhattan's origin unfolds at the Manhattan Club in New York, a claim the club still upholds today. According to this narrative, in 1874, Dr. Iain Marshall crafted the cocktail for a party hosted by Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston Churchill's mother) to celebrate Samuel J Tilden's triumph in New York's gubernatorial election.
However, this theory is not without its deterrents. David Wondrich noted his book Imbibe!, there are glaring inconsistencies in this tale. The party is said to have occurred at the same time Lady Randolph Churchill was in England giving birth to the future political legend Winston Churchill, casting doubt on the validity of this version of events.
An alternative and widely accepted account, supported by many cocktail historians, attributes the invention of the Manhattan to bartender William F Mulhall. Mulhall, who tended bar for several decades at New York's historic Hoffman House (which opened in 1679 and continues to serve drinks today), shared his version of the story in the Valentine’s Manual of Old New York book (1932). According to Mulhall, the Manhattan cocktail was the creation of a man named Black, who operated an establishment ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the 1860s. In Mulhall's narrative, this drink is touted as possibly the most famous in the world during its time.
Although, it’s a fascinating possibility – that Lady Randolph Churchill played a role in the creation of such a renowned drink. Equally fascinating is the juxtaposition with her son, Winston Churchill, who was known for his capacity for enjoying alcohol.
Add the rye whisky, sweet vermouth, and bitters into a mixing glass with ice and stir until well-chilled.
Strain into a chilled old fashioned or a coupe glass.
Garnish with a brandied cherry.