Manhattans—The Story of a Drink and a Bit About a Family Who Loves Them!

I really love bourbon.  Honestly, I’ve been drinking whiskey since I was three years old.  Yep, that’s right…three years old.   I should clarify just a bit so as not to disparage my parents.  From early on, I was a little rascal at holiday parties.   My mother’s family drink of choice was the Manhattan.  I would travel from one Riley relative to another, scarfing on the little booze-soaked maraschino cherries in the bottom of each lowball glass,  and every cherry I ate had the essence of that sophisticated cocktail.  Whether they were made with Grandpa Ed’s favorite Wild Turkey, or Mom’s E & J Brandy, the Manhattan was the family staple at all gatherings.  By the time I was five, I was usually able to finagle the last ice cube in the glass, or take the final tiny sip, while an aiding and abetting auntie or uncle looked the other way.  Whether its nostalgia, the sweet, woodsy taste of bourbon and vermouth, or the gorgeous, amber color of the drink itself, forty years later, the Manhattan continues to be my cocktail.

I haven’t posted in a while, because sadly, this last month was filled with preparing for and dealing with the unexpected death of my dear mother, Patricia.  My mom was a great lady who taught me many things, and I credit my mom with quite a bit of the person I am today.  On a “Life-Uncorked” note, Mom enjoyed sparkling wine, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc, and I could always count on her to join me in a glass of something fun during her visits.   She was my biggest blog fan—I had 600 blog hits the first couple of months—I’m fairly certain she was 500 of them!   But even closer to her drinking heart, was the Manhattan….and this edition is an homage to her.

Unlike many others, there is elegance and a history to this drink.  When I think of this cocktail, it conjures up an image in my mind of dark paneled bars filled with well-dressed men and women holding classy stemware.  I think of old black and white movies set in New York City with Katherine Hepburn, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.  I think of 5th Avenue, and Macy’s and Miracle on 34th Street.  That’s just what this particular drink does to me. 

But the Manhattan story goes back even further.   In the late 19th century, bartenders in the east were quite obsessed with the Italian liqueur, vermouth, and it was popping up in drinks everywhere.  Somewhere around 1870, a few clubs in New York were likely producing the drink in its first iterations, and one of them was the Manhattan Club at the corner of Madison Avenue and East 26th Street.  While other clubs, like the Turf Club were also producing a similar drink, the moniker credit likely goes back to the Manhattan Club.  If you’ve heard stories that Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s mother, created the drink around 1874…just any FYI, those have been discredited over the years.  In those Pre-Prohibition days, the recipe was for an equal parts drink featuring rye whiskey, bourbon’s herbaceous relative, and sweet vermouth.  As always, 2 dashes of bitters were in the mix. 

As history reminds us, near the turn of the century, not everyone in this country was enamored with drink.    After years of tremendous effort trying to convince the citizens of this country that alcohol was to blame for most all of society’s ills, the Temperance Movement got its stranglehold on politicians, and the 18th Amendment was passed.  Prohibition took effect in January of 1920 and lasted for nearly 14 years, and during that time, the tradition of the Manhattan evolved in the speakeasies of American lore. Often run by gangsters, these relatively fancy establishments served food, provided entertainment, and sold illegal alcoholic beverages.   Because rye whiskey was scarce, and Canadian whiskey was plentifully produced across the border, the Manhattan recipe changed to include its Canadian counterpart.  To this day, many places in the northern United States still make their Manhattans with Canadian whiskey.

In 1933, when alcohol once again became legal, rye whiskey was virtually nonexistent in the country, and because of its aging requirements, production of rye couldn’t occur quickly enough to go immediately to market.   Bourbon distilleries, on the other hand, were only too happy to produce and sell their corn mash product, which didn’t have the same aging requirement.  They could move their southern product up and down the Mississippi quickly and conveniently.  This new post-Prohibition glut of bourbon led to the advent of what most of us consider a Manhattan today:  2oz bourbon, 3/4oz sweet vermouth, 2 dashes of bitters.   Here’s a breakdown of my favorite individual ingredients:

Bourbon-I’m enjoying the following bottles this year, any of which make a fine drink.  I prefer to taste oak and a hint of vanilla and caramel in my bourbon:  1792 Ridgemont Reserve, Makers Mark 46, Makers Mark and Bulleit.  (If you want an authentic Manhattan rye experience, I have read that Tuthilltown Hudson Manhattan Rye Whiskey is a good microdistillery bet)

Sweet Vermouth-I’m a Noilly Prat Rouge girl, but Martini & Rossi or Cinzano will do the trick.  I hear that if you want to replicate an historic drink, go for the Carpano Antica Formula vermouth.  It is supposed to have a 19th century flavor profile…try it with the rye listed above.  I think I remember that locally, Biba uses the Carpano Antica.

Bitters-Hands down, it is Angostura for me.  Last year, maybe two, there was a production shortage in Trinidad and Tobago, and it was a devil to track down this little gem.  Bartenders and retailers alike (including Corti Bros) ran out of the product.  Luckily, it is back on the shelves.

Garnish- You already know I like a maraschino cherry, but you can always try something different.  Buy some dried cherries and reconstitute them in brandy, or just use a twist of lemon.

I’m including a link to fun video interview at the Clover Club, and the Little Branch, two NYC bars, where Manhattans are discussed .  Some friends and I are going out tonight to my favorite watering hole to have a Manhattan in my mom’s honor…find your favorite spot and do the same.  Cheers! xoxoSusan


One thought on “Manhattans—The Story of a Drink and a Bit About a Family Who Loves Them!

  1. Hi Susan…Beautiful blog entry in honor of mom. I, too, have the “Riley” love of a good Manhattan and enjoyed your history lesson!
    As you know, I am partial to Scotch, but recently I have taken a liking to Woodford Reserve bourbon. Cheers!

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