Manhattan’s eponymous cocktail is simultaneously as distinct and fluid as the borough it’s named after: three simple ingredients—whiskey, vermouth and bitters—coming together to form one iconic drink that has spawned countless others.
For all its fame, the origins of the Manhattan still remain a mystery; one of the most oft-recounted—that it was invented in 1874 at the Manhattan Club for a party thrown by Winston Churchill’s mother—is actually a myth. (As cocktail historian Dave Wondrich notes in Imbibe!, Mama Churchill was pregnant in England at the time she was reportedly sipping cocktails.) Currently prevailing theories credit the Manhattan Club, just without Winton’s mother, or one lone genius of a waiter, simply known as “Black,” who mixed up the cocktail downtown in the 1870s.
Whoever the brilliant mind was who first splashed together this holy trinity of ingredients, they likely couldn’t have imagined that it would still be kicking a century-and-a-half later. At once familiar and beguilingly complex, the Manhattan blueprint has been redrawn with everything from coffee liqueur to sherry to rum to mezcal to Sriracha bitters.
The classic has now become a patriarch of a whole family tree of modern drinks, like Gabriel Orta and Elad Zvi’s (of Miami’s Broken Shaker) El Duque, which swaps in rum for whiskey and sherry for vermouth, and tosses in some cold brew coffee and chocolate bitters for good measure. Aaron Polsky’s Breakfast skews even more avant-garde, eschewing brown liquor altogether in favor of mezcal combined with coffee liqueur and Sriracha bitters, to create something that, in Polsky’s words, “tastes a bit like a black cup of coffee and breakfast at a diner.”
Brad Farran’s Tokyo Drift takes things international with the use of Japanese whisky and the saffron-infused Italian liqueur Strega, and the obscure pre-Prohibition Up-To-Date Cocktail, a drink “Manhattanesque in both composition and deliciousness,” softens the edges of the whiskey and bitters with savory amontillado and Grand Marnier.
Down south, the Lee Brothers’ The Charleston takes bourbon and a dash of bitters and forgoes the vermouth in favor of their hometown’s beloved madeira. While Greg Best’s love child of the Manhattan and the Sazerac, the Rhythm and Soul, amps up the drink’s traditional bourbon and vermouth base with Herbsaint and Averna, for a drink that has “the rhythm of a Manhattan and the soul of a Sazerac.”
After all, part of this city’s daily rhythm is the way it invites its inhabitants to reinvent themselves. Its namesake cocktail is no different.