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What Is It About the Manhattan?

February 09, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

photo: Lizzie Munro


What Is It About the Manhattan?

February 09, 2021

Story: Robert Simonson

photo: Lizzie Munro

There’s a reason why the Golden Age recipe has inspired more modern classic cocktails than any other.

For all of the 20th century, if you liked Manhattan cocktails, you could order a Manhattan cocktail. But if you felt like something similar, just a bit different, your choices were limited. There was the Perfect Manhattan, with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, or a Rob Roy, the Scotch version of the cocktail.

Around 2009, however, that all changed. Options for Manhattan-like cocktails increased exponentially. You could order a Little Italy, made of rye, sweet vermouth and Cynar; a Greenpoint, made of rye, sweet vermouth, yellow Chartreuse and bitters; or a Carroll Gardens, made of rye, sweet vermouth, Nardini Amaro and maraschino liqueur. There were also the Bushwick, Sunset Park, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn Heights and The Slope—all named after Brooklyn neighborhoods and all containing rye whiskey, vermouth and something bitter.

If cocktail circles in the early 2010s were fixated on Old-Fashioned variations and the latter half of that decade was devoted to riffs on the Negroni, the late aughts were defined by Manhattan Mania, or perhaps more accurately, Brooklyn Fever.

But why were the stodgy old Manhattan and its obscure cousin, the Brooklyn (rye, dry vermouth, maraschino liqueur, Amer Picon), such a springboard of creativity? How did they manage to inspire more modern classics than any other historic cocktail? And why, indeed, draw inspiration at all from the Brooklyn, a drink that was never truly popular, and which couldn’t even be properly made once Amer Picon was withdrawn from the American market in the 1990s? The answer, it turns out, owed to three primary factors: one groundbreaking new drink, a reclaimed spirit and a show of friendly rivalry.

It all began with the Red Hook cocktail, a hybrid between a Manhattan and a Brooklyn created by bartender Vincenzo Errico in 2003.

“Most everyone who created the Manhattan and Brooklyn riffs that became known… were served a Red Hook by Enzo himself—or were at least aware of the drink,” explains Chad Solomon, one of the early bartenders at Milk & Honey. Errico, who met Milk & Honey owner Sasha Petraske in London and with whom he subsequently came to New York, had wanted to showcase the then-little-known Italian vermouth Punt e Mes. He paired it with rye and a touch of maraschino liqueur and crowned it the Red Hook, after a Brooklyn neighborhood that was once home to a large Italian population.

“The Red Hook was a calling card order,” remembers bartender Joaquín Simó, “a secret handshake back before there were cocktail bars on every corner. If you walked into a bar and they not only knew how to make a Red Hook, but also had the ingredients to make it, you knew you were in a solid bar.”

For Julie Reiner, who would create The Slope (rye, Punt e Mes, apricot liqueur, bitters) as the house Manhattan at her Brooklyn bar Clover Club in 2009, the central lesson of the Red Hook was that a classic “could be edited slightly to create new and equally delicious cocktails,” she says.

It was a sentiment seemingly shared throughout the budding New York cocktail scene. In short order, the drink that riffed on the Manhattan and the Brooklyn was being riffed on itself. Those who worked alongside Errico at Milk & Honey struck first. Michael McIlroy came up with his Greenpoint in 2006 and Chad Solomon created the Bensonhurst (rye, dry vermouth, maraschino and Cynar) the same year.

“I remember trying the Red Hook and thinking that I would love to make another variation,” recalls McIlroy. That sort of competitive camaraderie was common in those early days of the cocktail renaissance and spread quickly. “The bar scene was a much closer-knit group than now,” continues McIlroy. “We all knew one another, so it felt like we all inspired each other to continue these neighborhood cocktail riffs.”

Phil Ward, wanting to get in on the action at Death & Co., came up with the Bushwick, composed of rye, sweet vermouth, maraschino and Amaro Lucano.

Maxwell Britten, who at the time was cutting his teeth at a bar called Jack the Horse, devised the Brooklyn Heights, bringing together rye, dry vermouth, Amaro Abano, maraschino and Campari. Michael Madrusan, who worked at Milk & Honey and PDT, among other New York bars, combined rye, apricot liqueur, dry vermouth and Angostura bitters, and called it the Sunset Park. Sam Ross, also of Milk & Honey, had his Cobble Hill, a mix of rye, dry vermouth, Amaro Montenegro and cucumber. Before long, there wasn’t an area of Brooklyn that hadn’t been claimed.

“I think it was just kind of fun,” Ward remembers. “Pick a neighborhood and make a drink. It was a fun little bar-dork trend.”

Of course, not all Manhattan spins of the time were inspired by the Red Hook. Over in San Francisco, Todd Smith came up with the Black Manhattan—a modern classic consisting of rye, Averna and bitters—independently. “I just remember drinking and trying to find as much amaro as I could at the time,” recalls Smith. “Then trying to figure out how to introduce it to our clientele.” Though invented at the restaurant Cortez, the Black Manhattan became famous at Bourbon & Branch, the influential cocktail bar that opened in 2006 and was run by Smith. Bourbon & Branch also launched to fame the Revolver, a coffee liqueur–laced Manhattan riff invented by Jon Santer in 2004 at Bruno’s.

Over in Boston, in 2010, Eastern Standard bartender Nicole Lebedevitch tried to satisfy the tastes of a Manhattan-loving regular by coming up with the Ce Soir. The drink was composed of Cognac, Cynar, yellow Chartreuse and Angostura and orange bitters. “This drink was popular amongst our regulars and servers putting people onto Manhattan variations,” explains Lebedevitch.

That almost all of the drinks had rye bases—as opposed to bourbon, a more common spirit in Manhattans—was no mistake. The Red Hook and its offspring came of age during the rebirth of rye whiskey. Neglected and forgotten for decades, the spicy whiskey found a new home in craft cocktail bars.

“It’s hard to overstate the excitement that the arrival of Rittenhouse Rye in October 2005 unleashed in us at Pegu Club,” says Solomon. “It was an immediate game-changer.” Pegu Club owner Audrey Saunders campaigned hard to get Rittenhouse distributed in New York state. When it arrived, at $13 a bottle and boasting a generous six-year-old age statement (though the juice inside was actually older), bartenders began to pour it into everything.

“It was a new toy to most of us,” says Simó, “and you know how much bartenders love a new toy.”

Vermouth and amaro were also novel bartender passions in the late aughts, and the Manhattan offered a convenient template in which to showcase them. If a novice cocktail drinker sampled, in succession, the Red Hook, Bensonhurst, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Gardens and Cobble Hill, they would have been introduced to Punt e Mes, Cynar, Amaro Abano, Nardini Amaro and Amaro Montenegro. Between the rye and the various vermouths and amari, the Manhattan and Brooklyn formulas proved to be a one-stop shop for bartenders hoping to turn their customers on to new flavors.

After 2010, the storm of rye Manhattan riffs died down, and bartenders moved on to other newly discovered classic cocktails and re-introduced spirits. But evidence of that era still lingers. A few of the cocktails inspired by the original Manhattan-Brooklyn mashup, the Red Hook, went on to become minor modern classics in their own right, notably the Greenpoint and Carroll Gardens. And all of the bartenders in question remain proud of these products of their feverish youth.

“You know, I [recently] made a Bushwick for someone at Long Island Bar,” says Ward. “And I gotta say—damn finely balanced, delicious drink.”

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Tagged: Manhattan, Red Hook, rye