Plenty of people associate Manischewitz with happy memories of family dinners and high holy days—or, perhaps more accurately, the first time they ever got ill from alcohol. But cocktails?
As if one needed more proof that the cocktail renaissance has left no stone unturned, the “wine” everyone loves to hate is now finding its way into drinks, in place of ingredients like vermouth, grenadine and fruit liqueurs.
At Joe & MissesDoe in New York’s East Village, co-owner and bartender Jill Dobias has become an accidental evangelist for Manischewitz—or “Mani,” as it’s more affectionately known. “People ignore and make fun of it, but [Manischewitz] can be an interesting component to explore,” says Dobias, who has even gone so far as to include it on her wine list (she serves it over ice with a slice of lemon to balance the sweetness).
She was first inspired to play around with it after her husband Joe, chef at the restaurant, added a quirky chicken-stuffed matzo ball to a Passover menu the first year their restaurant was open. “I said, ‘I have to match that.'” She responded with a drink she calls The Drunken Pharaoh, a combination of bourbon, Manischewitz, lemon juice and soda water, served in a glass rimmed with crushed matzo and sugar. She followed that up by spiking a Margarita with a colorful splash of Mani, taking the drink from traditional to meshugenah (Yiddish for “crazy”).
Pamela Wiznitzer, creative director for Seamstress and newly-opened Belle Shoals, cites the appeal of Mani’s distinctive jammy aroma, concentrated sweetness and viscosity as a tool in making drinks. “It’s like the Jewish man’s port,” she says. Wiznitzer grew up with Kedem and Manischewitz wines at the holiday table but never considered it as a potential cocktail ingredient until she tried that Mani on ice at Joe & MissesDoe.
“It has tons of applications,” she says. “You can beef it up and make it into a liqueur if you add sugar and reduce it; you can add amaro [to it] and make a really nice, bitter, refreshing low-proof cocktail; it works well in sangria.”
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Wiznitzer and cocktail consultant Jonathan Pogash collaborated on a reverse New York Sour for a whiskey event that took place at the Jewish Heritage Museum. The drink was dubbed the Sammy Davis Jr. Sour—a reference to the Rat Pack crooner who shilled for Manischewitz in commercials in the 1960s and ‘70s. The drink mixes rye whiskey and lemon, but instead of a wine float on top—as is customary in the traditional New York Sour—the heavier Manischewitz is plopped in and allowed to sink to the bottom.
While Wiznitzer, Pogash and Dobias deliberately engineered their drinks to showcase Manischewitz in all its brash, over-sweetened glory, some bartenders manage to find ways to sneak it in through the side door, so to speak.
For Bill Brooks, beverage director at NYC’s Resto, inspiration came in the form of a dare by his girlfriend, who is Israeli and had never had Manischewitz before. “The conversation started last fall, and it took me several months of experimenting to really figure out what I wanted to do with it,” he says. The result: The Bishop of Terni, a mix of sotol, Manischewitz syrup, lemon juice and pea tendrils.
Though Brooks added Mani to his menu on a dare, a drinker not accustomed to Manischewitz as a treacly Seder sidekick might actually breeze right by it as just another unfamiliar cocktail ingredient. But it’s best enjoyed with a wink. According to Wiznitzer, the one thing you can’t do with the surprisingly versatile Mani: “You can’t take it too seriously.”