Few cocktails have weathered the test of time quite like the Manhattan. Where the Martini has run the gamut from bone-dry to wet (and back again) over the course of the last century, and the Old-Fashioned has transformed from a muddled fruit salad to the most riffed-on classic cocktail, the Manhattan has remained relatively unscathed by shifting tastes.
Thought to have been created at New York City’s Manhattan Club in the 1870s, the eponymous cocktail was the first mainstream mixed drink to use vermouth, predating even the Martini. While the formula has undergone nominal tinkering since its inception—a 1916 Manhattan Club recipe describes it as “equal portions of [sweet] vermouth and whiskey, with a dash of orange bitters,” the modern version is closer to two parts whiskey (rye or bourbon) to one-part vermouth.
“What’s cool about today’s cocktail world,” says Caitlin Laman, a Chicago-based bar consultant and co-founder of the annual cocktail conference, Chicago Style, “is that we have classics like the Manhattan that continue to be irreplaceable, but the incredible array of spirits we now have to work with makes it fun to play around.”
Laman has garnered national attention for her thoughtful interpretations on the classics. To wit, she won third place in a blind Manhattan tasting conducted by PUNCH in late 2016, using distinctive spirits—Johnny Drum Private Stock Bourbon and Tempus Fugit Alessio Vermouth di Torino. “Making a big, bold cocktail for this tasting was strategic,” she recalls. “I’ve judged a lot of competitions, and palate blowout is a thing. Something full-flavored stands out. This is a version I created years ago while working at Trick Dog in San Francisco.”
While most Manhattans are built around the base spirit, Laman works backwards, choosing the whiskey to complement her choice of sweet vermouth. “I have an affinity for Tempus Fugit because everything they do is beautiful, but I also really enjoy vermouth—I drink it neat. This version is a big bitter, more prominent than its counterpoints. I love it.”
Johnny Drum’s Private Stock Bourbon was just the spirit to stand up to the assertive vermouth. “Rye is pretty spicy with a high alcohol content, but this particular bourbon is a favorite of mine,” says Laman. “It has big chocolate, coffee and tobacco flavors and it’s quite balanced, despite being 50.5 percent ABV.”
When it comes to bitters, Laman never strays from Angostura. “It always works,” she says. “If a cocktail isn’t quite there, a dash or two of Angostura generally corrects it. It’s consistent.”
Laman’s house-infused cherries replace the Manhattan’s signature maraschino cherry garnish. “The first cocktail bar I ever worked in brandied cherries in-house,” she says, “It’s one of those inexpensive, easy things you can do in a small bar or at home to really add your own kick to a drink.” She rinses the syrup from Amarena cherries (“Most jarred brands are good”) and soaks them in two parts Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac to one-half part Gutiérrez Colosía Sangre y Trabajadero Oloroso overnight. (“If there’s anything I love more than vermouth, it’s sherry.”)
Laman’s affection for vermouth aside, she finds the Manhattan’s inherent austerity appealing. “It’s one of my favorite cocktails to make because it’s so simple, but it makes such an impact. You can tell a lot about a bartender by how they make a Manhattan.”