May it Please the Palate: Classic Manhattan

Went out to one of those chains the other day. The faux neighborhood bar with the kitsch on the walls and the multi-page color menus. Their cocktail special, announced while snow was falling all around us outside, was a Long Beach Iced Tea. I asked for a Manhattan, on the rocks.

Five minutes later, the apologetic server returned, to say that the bartender didn't know what a Manhattan was - but would be happy to make one if I described it. I passed. I asked instead for a Southern Comfort on the rocks. I figured they couldn't screw that up.

Then I made the mistake of asking for it with a twist. "A twist?" "A lemon twist." "A lemon?" "No, a lemon twist." Of course, it was served with a lemon wedge.

This wasn't the server's fault. He was earnestly trying to understand what I wanted. He just didn't have a clue. This is the fault of those corporate chains that assume Michigan customers in January would prefer a foo-foo cocktail with an umbrella to something that burns the palate so perfectly, like a fire in a wood stove on a winter's day.

Here's to the Manhattan. A classic cocktail with roots to the 1860's. One of the six "basic cocktails" listed in David Embry's 64 year old "The Art of Mixing Drinks." One of five variations on a theme, all named after New York City boroughs. One superb and sublime combination of whiskey, sweet vermouth, bitters and a maraschino cherry.

"Ugh. Do you know how they make maraschino cherries?" responds my go-to cocktail expert, Tammy Coxen (http://www.tammystastings.com). "They are bleached, which removes the color and firms up the cherry, then sweetened with corn syrup, and dyed with artificial color." She loves Manhattans, but won't use commercial maraschinos.

Me, I don't mind the nostalgic pull of one of those bleached, neon red puppies, waiting for me at the bottom of the glass, bursting with the last juicy drops of my sweet whiskey. But I can see Tammy's point. That's why she uses her own brandied cherries, which you will find with more frequency as "classic cocktail" bars flourish in urban areas; or you may find some preservative-free maraschinos in specialty food stores.

Tammy is also a stickler for rye whiskey, which some consider traditional in Manhattans. She insists the drink be stirred, not shaken (you may recall her similar advice on classic martinis a few columns back). Stirring gives the drink a clarity and brightness that is lost when the drink is vigorously shaken. "You can taste the ingredients," notes Tammy.

Some prefer the lively froth that results from a shaken cocktail, like those presented by Eric Jones, bartender at Ann Arbor's "Grange" restaurant, during our very scientific Manhattan tasting. Eric sagely noted, "There are no wrong Manhattans." We tasted a lot of right ones. Tammy prefers Russell's Reserve rye with Carpano Antica sweet vermouth, in a 2:1 ratio, with two dashes of Angostura Bitters. Eric prefers the smoky taste of Knob Creek bourbon with Vya sweet vermouth, with two dashes of bitters and a dash of cherry cordial.

I go for something far more simple. I tended bar back in the day when a classic cocktail was a Fuzzy Navel or Sex On the Beach. If someone ordered a Manhattan, I used bourbon and sweet vermouth, with a neon cherry. I only used bitters in an Old Fashioned. So my own preference for a Manhattan is Maker's Mark bourbon with sweet vermouth, poured on the rocks.

Tammy argued with me. "Ice dilutes the cocktail." I retorted, "You taught me in the martini class that water is an essential ingredient of a cocktail." Zing. It was like cross examining an expert witness with their own treatise. Personally, I love how ice mellows a cocktail over time, from the heady first taste to the easy last sip. And without the bitters, I get the distinct taste of the liquor - first the vermouth, which greases the skids for the hard bite of the bourbon. Tammy says that bitters are "magical, uniting the whiskey and vermouth more than the sum of their parts." But to me, the bourbon loses its character when bitters is added.

Tammy and I agreed on one thing. As she put it: "The best Manhattan is the one you like, and you should not be afraid to tell the bartender exactly how you like it."

Unless that bartender works for the corporate foo foo chain. Then God help you.

Tammy Coxen's

Classic Manhattan

2 parts Russell's Reserve Rye

1 part Carpano Antica sweet vermouth

2 dashes Angostura bitters

1 brandied cherry

Stir all ingredients except cherry in an ice filled mixing glass. Strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry. Perhaps one of the homemade ones below?

Brandied Cherries

Ann Kleinberg, "Gifts From the Kitchen"

1 pound fresh cherries

1 cup brandy

3/4 granulated sugar

3/4 cup water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Snip off the stems of the cherries, leaving 1/2 inch. Rinse the cherries in cold water. Place in a heatproof jar and cover with brandy (make sure that the jar is large enough to accommodate more liquid). Cover the jar, but do not seal it. Leave out for several hours, preferably overnight.

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat bring the sugar, water, and lemon juice to a boil and simmer for ten minutes. Pour the brandy from the cherry jar into the saucepan and stir in. Once blended, pour all the liquid over the cherries in the jar(s) and seal.

Allow to stand for one month before use.

(A month?! There goes the spontaneity.)

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard and Walker, P.C., a law firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation.

He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for "Current" magazine.

He can be reached at: nroumel @nachtlaw.com

Published: Thu, Jan 26, 2012

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