Rosemary Miller and I both love Manhattans, so much so that we decided to start studying them. We will be breaking them down into their parts to examine how each one works and documenting our journey along the way. We started off by visiting Buffalo Trace Distillery recently to learn how bitters are made. We both knew that bitters were a crucial component of our favorite cocktail, but we weren’t exactly sure what went into making them. More on that in a future post.

After talking about this idea for months Michael suggested that we start with the whiskey rather than the bitters, as that’s how we typically make our Manhattans at home. I’m no bartender to be sure, and as I recently learned at a cocktail class at the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse you’re supposed to use your cheapest ingredients first in case you make a mistake. But the way I make my Manhattans at home is whiskey, vermouth, bitters, shake, pour, cherry.

We started off our study on a Friday night with a back yard cookout followed by cocktails. We pulled out over a dozen bottles of whiskey with one goal in mind: determine whether we like bourbon or rye whiskey better in our Manhattans. We used two 10 year Michter’s whiskeys – bourbon and rye – and two bonded Heaven Hill products – Old Fitzgerald and Rittenhouse. The logic behind this was that we wanted to try different mash bills and proofs, though in retrospect maybe age was a greater consideration here than we thought it would be. It definitely warrants further investigation as we move forward.

Here are some of our notes from that evening:

Michter’s 10 year Bourbon 94.4 Proof

  • Bourbon forward
  • Flavor seems complex in a pleasing way

Old Fitzgerald Bottled in Bond 100 Proof

  • The higher proof comes out
  • Slight tannen flavor
  • Sweeter than Michter’s Bourbon, but the wheaty soft flavor gets lots
  • The bourbon flavor really comes through

Michter’s 10 Year Rye 92.8 Proof

  • The rye seems more “awake”
  • Grassy notes
  • Spicier but not overwhelming
  • The spice compliments the bitters
  • We both took a sip and proclaimed, “Now THIS is a Manhattan!”

Rittenhouse Rye Bottled in Bond 100 Proof

  • Hot with no mouthfeel
  • We both like Rittenhouse on its own, but for some reason it does not make a good Manhattan. We don’t know what causes this, but I have had an unpalatable Manhattan made with Rittenhouse before so it’s not a fluke. This warrants further investigation.

The Conclusion

We decided we both like rye whiskey in a Manhattan because of the depth and complexity of flavor it brings to the mix. To be sure, I will take and even enjoy just about any Manhattan you hand me. Age and proof seem to make a huge difference, though, and we realized that old attitude of mixing cocktails with bottom shelf whiskey is bunk. But we’re going for what works the best, and for Rosemary and me it’s whiskey forward and made with rye.

Footnote (see what I did there?): Why “Barefoot Manhattans”? I had to take my shoes off to climb into a chair to get all my glassware out of the high shelves in my cabinets. Now you know.

See all the sections of this project below:

Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl

Rosemary Miller also contributed to this story.