The Manhattan, and a New Bitters

The Manhattan 

Rather than look at origin, I’ll talk about the drink itself, but still some history will be needed.

A Manhattan is typically American or Canadian whisky, red vermouth, bitters. It’s either shaken or stirred and “up”, or on the rocks. Cherry optional, or lemon twist. Variations include a dry version, with white vermouth instead of red, or the “perfect” Manhattan, with red and white vermouths mixed (not quite the right taste, IMO, but many like them).

The history is important when you look at American whiskey in the 1800s. At the time, matured bourbon or straight rye was often combined with new or aged grain spirits, and maybe flavouring, to form blended whiskey. The blends satisfied the public taste and came at the right price.

Good straight whiskey “uncut” was hard to find, and expensive. Young straight whiskey was available, aged 1-3 years, but the flavour couldn’t compare to 4-8 year old whiskey.

I think the Manhattan developed as a way to make young or blended whiskey resemble matured straight bourbon or rye. Matured whiskey can be sweetish, fruity, and rich, just like a Manhattan. The exotic herbal and winy notes in vermouth probably emulated that.

Also, current lore holds that the Manhattan dates from 1860s wartime New York, when the Civil War impeded the flow of matured whiskey to the northeast. Maybe the Manhattan was devised as a reasonable substitute.

The Kind of Whiskey To Use

It is nonetheless the case that whiskey too old doesn’t suit the cocktail. Your finest 12-20 year old bourbon or rye is less good than, say, Four Roses Yellow Label, Wild Turkey, or Woodford Reserve. The extra wood in the old whiskey clashes with the vermouth and other flavourings, or such is my experience. Whiskey from 4-8 years old is ideal.

In the converse, vermouth is not at its best with young straight whiskey, and can overpower the blended form. I like a combination of whiskeys: two or three bourbons or ryes, maybe the regular kind of Canadian (not too much), and a straight-type Canadian like Lot 40, Masterson’s, or a good craft whiskey. I used Toronto Distillery’s First Barrels in such a base recently with excellent results.

If using one whisky in a Manhattan, I like Dark Horse, which is heavy enough but not too woody. Also, Wiser’s Legacy, or Canadian Club Single Rye Grain (the green label).

The Vermouth

In this area I am less fussy than the whiskey. I’ll use any available brand, but I blend different (red) vermouths, too.

The vermouth contributes its wine, brandy (vermouth is partly brandy), and flavourings. The whiskeys give their cereal notes and barrel character. Why does a wine-based drink match well with grain-based American whiskey? I don’t know, it just does. The combination is uniquely appealing, one of those non-intuitive but undeniable gastronomic successes. It’s like a hot dog and mustard, or bagel and cream cheese.

Trying a New Bitters

The bitters are vital. Typically I use Angostura or a Fees brand.

Recently, I was given a sample of Toronto-based Promise Bitters’ “No. 1 Smoke and Ash”, a cocktail bittersI’m told it is currently incorporated into a popular drink at the chic Canoe Restaurant downtown. This black-hued bitters has been available mostly to Toronto’s mixologists but can be purchased at Lavish and Squalor, 253 Queen Street West, Toronto, a gifts and apparel shop. Instagram, here, has more information, and a website is planned.

Smoke and Ash is smoky, musky, perfumed, and lends an intriguing note to a Manhattan. I see it going well in a Dark and Stormy, and many other drinks. It is a welcome addition to the lively bitters scene.

Note re first image: attribution for the first image above: By Paramount – source, It was sourced from the Wikipedia entry for the 1928 film of the same name. Intellectual property to or in the image belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized user. Image believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




2 thoughts on “The Manhattan, and a New Bitters”

  1. Interesting piece, Gary. I can completely see how the Manhattan was devised to spruce up young whiskey.

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