It may feel a little adolescent, but there are still some things, in adult life, that are cool. The Manhattan is one of those things.
It’s not cool like a fast car or a devil-may-care attitude, nor is it particularly trendy. It’s not TikTok cool. It’s cool the way your Grandpa was cool, the way good jazz and Paul Newman and a three-piece suit are cool. Old School Cool, less in veneration than timelessness. You could dislike Negronis or not much care for Margaritas, and it won’t raise an eyebrow, but if you don’t like Manhattans, the general conclusion will be that the problem is with you.
It’s quite the comeback story for what was, in the ’70s and ’80s, widely seen as a stodgy artifact of a bygone era. A rye whiskey, vermouth and bitters cocktail that is garnished with a cherry was, after all, of limited use to an entire generation who couldn’t find rye whiskey, whose garbage vermouth had spoiled long ago, whose bottles of bitters were crusted shut, and whose incandescent “maraschino cherries” had more in common with their own packaging material than an actual living cherry. These were dark times in the drinking world. Then about 30 years ago some bartenders rediscovered fresh ingredients and a movement took root, first slowly and then it seems all at once, and cocktails rose, Phoenix-like, from their own ashes. And there, on the right-hand throne of cocktail culture itself, sits the Manhattan, once again.
There’s good reason for this: A well-made Manhattan is a sublime thing. It’s strong but not bracing, smooth but not boring and rich but not sweet—some kind of needle-threading magic that is rare to the point of unique in the cocktail pantheon. Additionally, as it is served up (without ice) and contains two ingredients with high aromatic complexity, it changes as it warms, evolving, inviting you at any moment to experience it nearly anew. It is, when properly constructed, irrepressibly charming.
The problem, though, is unlike the Negroni or Margarita, it’s pretty easy to screw up the Manhattan. Its pedestal of greatness is narrow, and almost any step in the wrong direction—wrong or overly oxidized vermouth, wrong rye, wrong vermouth-rye combination, over-stirring, etc.—drops it from great down to just OK, and a just OK Manhattan is so disappointing.
If you’ve never had a great Manhattan, you might wonder what I’m prattling on about. Well, try one or all of these recipes and you’ll get it.
For this cocktail and the additional recipes below, add ingredients to mixing glass, stir on ice for 15 seconds (small ice) to 30 seconds (bigger ice). Strain into stemmed cocktail glass and garnish with a quality cocktail cherry, an orange peel or nothing at all.
This is what you’ll get as a default in most cocktail bars: a punchy, 100 proof Kentucky-style rye with an ounce of quality vermouth. Rittenhouse and its competitors (Old Overholt Bonded or Wild Turkey 101) aren’t perfect here, and a lot of vermouths just don’t work with them, but Cocchi Vermouth di Torino holds its own beautifully with a kiss of vanilla sweetness and complexity. In fact, if you don’t know in advance what vermouth your rye is optimized for, Cocchi is as safe an all-around bet as you can get.
Both Michter’s Rye and Punt e Mes are exceptional Manhattan ingredients, and never more so than when they’re together. Michter’s has a caramel richness, a toasted-oak sweet spice, that sings with just about any vermouth you could throw at it. Especially radiant is the dark cherry and chocolate richness and incredible depth of Punt e Mes, the other most all-purpose Manhattan vermouth.
Rye tends to be the better call, but bourbon can play in this space too. It is true that a sweeter bourbon will lack the balancing spice required and can end up a bit flat, but high-rye bourbons, like Bulleit, can be quite good. Of all the vermouth’s tested, Bulleit Bourbon found its other half in Lustau Vermut, a sherry-based sweet vermouth that offers texture, depth, and an echo of the nutty quality for which sherry is famous.