The Manhattan is the rare classic cocktail that nearly everyone loves. It’s almost unavoidable: The combination of American whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters makes for a drink that is simultaneously bold yet sweet, just a little bit bitter and so very easy-drinking. For most drinkers, there’s only one argument about the cocktail: rye or bourbon?
With so few ingredients, though, the matter of reinventing it can become tricky—not to mention raise philosophical quandaries. With such a simple template, how do you preserve the great drink’s identity while still taking it to new heights?
For Miami beverage director Tom Lasher-Walker, the key lies in looking at the fundamentals of what makes a Manhattan a Manhattan, a lesson he learned while at established craft cocktail bars in New York. During this time, which he calls “the most important of my career,” he was taught to break down every single cocktail on earth into just a few drink “families.”
Thus, his Sting Rye. While at first blush, it may not seem to fit within any of those core families, it’s actually a member of the Manhattan brood. Lasher-Walker explains that’s because it follows what he believes are the most basic Manhattan fundamentals: The cocktail must be around a 2-to-1 ratio of whiskey (in this case Knob Creek® Rye) to at least one other botanical-heavy fortified wine, and it should contain something bitter. That usually means three ingredients—and yet his Sting Rye only uses rye and Branca Menta.
“In this case,” Lasher-Walker explains, “there’s one modifier that does the job of both of the previous ingredients of vermouth and bitters.” Branca Menta is unique in that it provides both bitterness, from its Fernet base, and sweetness, due to the added mint syrup. As a bonus, its botanical flavor profile amps up the mint and dill notes lingering within Knob Creek® Rye.
Other bartenders agree that using rye offers more latitude to riff. The maple syrup profile of Knob Creek® Rye, for instance, always makes Stephanie Andrews recall a good diner breakfast. That’s the inspiration behind her Anything Besides Water?
The Chicago-based beverage director bolsters that maple note, skipping a traditional citrus twist and, instead, adding aromatics via her house-made fenugreek tincture. Instead of sweet vermouth, she employs Cardamaro—an oaky wine-based amaro flavored with cardoon and blessed thistle that plays nicely with Knob Creek® Rye’s similar oak and herbal notes.
“I use ingredients that complement the whiskey while at the same time keeping the integrity of the cocktail,” Andrews explains. “Amaro swapped for vermouth works really well, as many of us have consumed or made plenty of black Manhattans.”
If Lasher-Walker and Andrews seem highly methodical when it comes to developing their Manhattan variants, Atlanta’s Keyatta Mincey-Parker is a bit more abstract in approach.
“Truth be told, I actually dream about drinks and figure out what goes in them from there,” she explains.
But there is a method to her madness. For classic cocktails, she first envisions the current season, then conjures up a color palette and appropriate garnishes to go with it, and, only then, decides what ingredients should comprise the drink. Mincey-Parker’s Autumn in New York makes the traditional Manhattan even more fall-ready by infusing figs into sweet vermouth and opting for a combo of black walnut and molasses bitters, instead of the expected Angostura.
Riff or not, at its heart, the Manhattan is a whiskey drink. And that’s one reason Mincey-Parker chose Knob Creek® Rye for her Manhattan. “It’s a bold one, so when you taste it, you know exactly what it is,” she explains. “I use it because you still taste the rye in every sip.”
Please drink responsibly. Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey, 50% Alc./Vol. ©201_ Knob Creek Distilling Company, Clermont, KY. Knob Creek® is a registered trademark of Jim Beam Brands Co. and is used with permission.