The family of three-ingredient cocktails comprises perhaps the most sacred nobility of the mixed drink canon. The Daiquiri, Negroni, Martini and Manhattan are just a few examples that have long hung their hat on an intricate triangulation of ingredients. So is it heresy to suggest that adding a fourth ingredient may not be the worst thing to happen to one of them? What if I were to suggest that the Perfect Manhattan, with its critical addition of dry vermouth, was perhaps more deserving of its name than we commonly consider? The earliest Manhattan recipes frequently sported dashes of Curaçao, gum syrup, maraschino and even absinthe, so it’s fair game to assume the four-ingredient Manhattan has been with us from the very start.
As a longtime bartender and bar owner, I’ve learned to appreciate how the Perfect Manhattan formula forces you to carefully consider each fortified wine and how best to proportionally combine them, as well as which base spirits will play nicely (or not) with their aromatized pals. Dry vermouth can, naturally, dry out the sweetness of some bourbons—a useful tool for keeping the balance of the drink in check—or help add a necessary herbal note if the barrel or confectionary notes of the whiskey are getting too heavy. Or, if the sweet vermouth is very assertive or fruity and spiced, I might go a little heavier on the dry vermouth (say, three-quarters of an ounce of dry to a half-ounce of sweet for 2 ounces of whiskey) to keep the drink from being overpowered. This approach is an effective way to add nuance without adding proof to the typical Manhattan, and offers another element with which to use the plug-and-play method of cocktail experimentation.
Like the perfect transitional wardrobe, your bar cart should be filled with pieces you can layer as warranted by the weather (and the occasion). Think subbing in blanc vermouth in the spring or ambrato vermouth in the fall. Sherry-based vermuts can be overwhelming on their own in Manhattans, but add gorgeous depth when split with another vermouth. And while rye and bourbon are the classic American base spirits, a Perfect Scotch Manhattan is truly a thing of beauty. Infinitely variable, this construction—no matter which direction you take it—yields a drink that still reads like a Manhattan; one that is, well, perfect.