The Manhattan is in many ways the perfect foil to the Martini. Both are uncontested members of the spirit-forward cocktail pantheon, but where the Martini is sharp, crunchy and bracing, the Manhattan is rich, round and warming, something to sink into at the end of a long day. Where the Martini is an idea, capable of reskinning itself to meet the demands of any given moment (dirty or dry; made with vodka, gin or even mezcal and tequila), the Manhattan is far less elastic—at least according to our recent blind tasting.
Of the 10 submitted recipes, nine called for rye; of those nine, five specified Rittenhouse, a 100-proof expression with notes of honey, cinnamon and nutmeg. Six of the total recipes adhered to a traditional 2:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth (the others only veered ever so slightly off-course, with a 3:1 ratio), and all 10 specified Angostura bitters.
But even within such well-defined parameters, there is plenty of room for error. And with such an austere build, there’s nowhere to hide. “If you make a mistake, it’s there and everyone’s going to see it,” said longtime New York bartender Sarah Morrissey of the drink’s unforgiving nature. Earlier this week, I was joined by Morrissey, Punch’s associate editor Mary Anne Porto and art director Lizzie Munro, as well as Best New Bartender Kat Foster at Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar, where KJ Williams stirred up the Manhattans to the exact specifications of the submitting bartenders.
“You want to taste all three ingredients,” explained Morrissey. The judges were in favor of a rye base to bring dry, spiced notes, balanced by a robust sweet vermouth and rounded out by Angostura bitters. A cherry was also a must. Foster, meanwhile, outlined the biggest potential pitfall: “understirring—if it’s not cold enough or diluted enough it will just taste hot.” Overstir it, meanwhile, and you’re left with a drink that’s thin and watery. Unlike an Old-Fashioned, whose on-the-rocks presentation offers a degree of forgiveness, Munro noted of the Manhattan: “If it’s not great when you get it, it’s just going to get worse.”
Though there were no real losers in the bunch, the clear winner was Richie Boccato’s Manhattan. His archetypal recipe, the one served at his classics-driven bar Dutch Kills in Queens, New York, adheres to the expected 2:1 ratio, with a base of Michter’s rye and Cocchi di Torino sweet vermouth complemented by two dashes of Ango. Boccato specifies that, for optimal results, both the mixing and serving glasses should be kept in the freezer prior to making the drink. The ice used to stir the drink should also be fresh from the freezer, rather than pulled from the bar’s well. Boccato’s drink was hefty, but not sweet, and won the judges over from the first sip. As one expects from any good Manhattan, the drink is comforting: “It feels like a salve,” remarked Foster.
Second place went to Abigail Gullo, of Loa in New Orleans. Her recipe calls for Rittenhouse as the base and splits the vermouth portion between the sherry-based Lustau Vermut Rojo and Carpano Antica, though the 2:1 ratio remains intact. Two dashes of Angostura bitters complete the recipe, which the judges found to be pleasantly spice-forward.
Third place went to Joaquín Simó, who splits not only the vermouth quotient, but also the whiskey base and even the bitters. His recipe, the same one that landed on the podium (albeit in second place) in our 2016 Manhattan blind tasting, combines an ounce each of Rittenhouse rye and Russell’s Reserve 10-year bourbon, plus a half-ounce each of Cinzano 1757 sweet vermouth and Martelletti Classico sweet vermouth, and finally a dash each of Angostura bitters and Dale DeGroff’s pimento bitters. That final flourish added noticeable baking spice to the equation. The drink lacked the expected cherry garnish, but was nonetheless soothing in a way only a Manhattan can be.