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.
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:
- Bourbon or Rye?
- The Right Rye
- Vermouth One
- Vermouth Two
- Vermouth Three
- Shaken or Stirred?
- The Bitter Truth
- And A Cherry On Top
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl
Rosemary Miller also contributed to this story.
June 14, 2017 at 8:19 am
“you’re supposed to use your cheapest ingredients first in case you make a mistake”
I don’t agree with that at all. There are not really many mistakes you can make in a cocktail, and the better the ingredients, the better the drink. While I concede that “cheap” never really equals “bad”, you should add to a drink that is as dependent on very few components the best you can get of these few components.
June 14, 2017 at 3:44 pm
“cheapest” here refers more toward the costs of the individual ingredients, rather than quality. Vermouth will almost always cost less than whiskey, so if you make a mistake in adding the bitters or the vermouth, you won’t have messed up your whiskey as well. This is a method that many bars employ to cut down on waste.
June 14, 2017 at 10:28 pm
You are correct, Thomas! Cheapest refers to cost – it’s a cost-savings measure. For what it’s worth I don’t do this at home – just passing along information 🙂
June 14, 2017 at 12:27 pm
What Vermouth(s) and Bitter(s), and overall proportions, are you using?
FYI, long ago I was introduced to using half sweet red and half dry white (using Noilly mostly), using Rye whiskey, and was told the cocktail was a known as Perfect Manhattan.
Been a while since I’ve had one. Thanks. Slainte!
June 14, 2017 at 10:21 pm
I was using the Martini & Rossi vermouth I had in my fridge. We are going to be looking at different vermouths next. I mixed 2 oz. whiskey, 1 oz. vermouth, and 2 dashes bitters for each Manhattan.
June 14, 2017 at 3:37 pm
Shaking instead of stirring completely changes the mouthfeel of a Manhattan. It introduces more air into the mix which is why you get that froth on top. Stirring keeps the drink velvety and rich.
I regularly drink Rittenhouse Manhattans (2 oz Rittenhouse, 1 oz Dolin Rouge, 2-3 dashes Angostura, stir and strain into a chiled glass) and I’ve not had the same mouthfeel issue.
I’d be interested on your thoughts on trying these all again stirred.
June 14, 2017 at 10:25 pm
We’re going to look at shaking in a later study 🙂
June 14, 2017 at 4:59 pm
Spiritous cocktails need only be chilled by through stirring with well made ice cubes in a proper glass vessel. They should never be shaken. Take it from me. ;->
June 14, 2017 at 10:22 pm
We are going to try them shaken versus stirred in a later study 🙂
June 14, 2017 at 10:13 pm
Agree. Stir it. Don’t shake it. Shaking bruises the whiskey. Bulleit rye is good option too.
June 14, 2017 at 10:22 pm
Love Bulleit Rye in a Manhattan!
June 15, 2017 at 2:01 pm
My folks always made Perfect Manhattans.
July 18, 2019 at 1:40 pm
I thoroughly enjoy this discussion but there is not enough information given. All great cocktails rely solely on the quality of their ingredients and the methods of mixing. Are these straight Manhattans or perfect Manhattans? We’re they shaken or stirred? What bitters were used, and how much? And what cherries for the garnish. Personally, the common, store bought maraschino cherries (except Luxardo) will ruin an otherwise great Manhattan.
July 18, 2019 at 10:37 pm
If you look further on my blog you will see this is just the first of a series on the Manhattan.
July 18, 2019 at 4:59 pm
Choosing the right vermouth is just as important as finding the right whiskey for a Manhattan. With rye, I typically employ Carpano Antica Formula. If you’re unfamiliar, Carpano is a full bodied and assertive vermouth. It can dominate softer, wheated Bourbons but stands up to bolder Bourbons and rye’s spicier notes.
Keep in mind that Carpano is a vermouth alla vaniglia — a regional style that enhances vermouth with vanilla. Some find the flavor off-putting while others enjoy it especially with caramel forward whiskies.
Another favorite of mine is Cocchi Vermouth di Torino. Made with a Moscato base, it has noticable dried fruit and cocoa flavors. Cocchi makes a beautiful Manhattan (or Boulevardier for that matter!). Rich and complex, it is best paired with a rye or a higher rye Bourbon.
Cinzano and Noilly Prat also make a fine Manhattan at a more affordable price point.
If you’re feeling creative, you could combine different vermouths and make your own house blend. Whatever you decide, always refrigerate your vermouth after opening.