I'm not much of a home cocktail-maker. My liquor cabinet's not very interesting, and I don't have a lot of patience for following recipes. But I recently got on a Manhattan kick. The standard recipe's simple: 2 ounces of rye whiskey, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth and two dashes of bitters. I combined Bulleit Rye, Noilly Pratt and Angostura bitters in a shaker with ice, shook it and strained it into a rocks glass. It turned out fine. Not great—just fine. Some of you already know where I went wrong.
As famed bartender Gary Regan wrote, "[A] truly great Manhattan can be made only by someone who truly understands the magnitude of what's at hand." And by that he means: If you're a bartender who can't make a great Manhattan, you're screwed.
I wanted to be able to make a great Manhattan, so I went to talk to Meghan Balser at North Park's Seven Grand to see how I might improve. Balser's been working at the North Park bar since it opened in June 2012. Prior to that, she did a stint at Salt Box, her first San Diego gig after four years at New York's Pegu Club.
The recipe I used is pretty much the same as Seven Grand's, though their Manhattan includes Carpano Antica vermouth. But Carpano's not the rule, Balser says.
"It has such a strong flavor... you know Carpano's in your drink," she says.
If she wants the focus to be on the whiskey, she'll use a lighter vermouth. And a Manhattan doesn't need to include sweet vermouth: A Perfect Manhattan is sweet and dry vermouths. A Dry Manhattan leaves out the sweet vermouth. One of Balser's favorite drinks, the Little Italy, uses half an ounce of Cynar in place of bitters, 2 ounces of Rittenhouse Rye and three-quarters of an ounce of Martini & Rossi sweet vermouth.
Some folks won't go anywhere near Martini & Rossi, but it's the ingredient that the cocktail's creator intended. "If you make it with Carpano, it's a different drink," Balser says. "It's still good, but it's not the Little Italy I know and love."
Nor must a Manhattan include rye. A Rob Roy is a Manhattan made with Scotch, and a Paddy's made with Irish whiskey. Balser digs the Rosita, in which tequila replaces bourbon, Campari's used instead of bitters and both sweet and dry vermouth round out the drink.
As for my quest to make a better Manhattan, it ends up that using the shaker was where I went wrong. It's not a total amateur move, Balser says—some folks make it that way, "but it's not as good." Overholt Rye is Seven Grand's house whiskey for Manhattans, but Balser wanted me to try Congenial Spirits' Twelve Five Rye—she's a brand ambassador for Congenial, which produces some really lovely small-batch spirits. The Twelve Five's now on my favorites list.
Balser combined the ingredients in a glass tumbler with ice, stirred slowly for 30 seconds or so and strained the mix into a chilled coupe glass garnished with Luxardo cherries. And there you go: A truly great Manhattan.