I'll Take a Manhattan
Feb 5, 2018
Kevin Marshaus

Modern food culture has led us to an evolution of all things gastronomic. Unlimited information and ingredients are now at our fingertips... or even just a voice command away! In spite of all of the tools we have to aid our creativity, we retain a hunger to experience the flavors of the past. Classic cocktails that were once mainstays, again command attention they haven’t seen in a half century. 

The classic Manhattan cocktail was originally a blend of 2 parts rye or bourbon whiskey, 1 part red sweet vermouth and a single dash of Angostura bitters, garnished with a Maraschino cherry. Prohibition brought us lighter, smoother Canadian whiskies because of their availability. Still, a third of this cocktail is vermouth. But what is vermouth?

Vermouth, a fortified wine infused with various herbs and spices, has been around for millennia as a medicinal product. Wormwood, a primary ingredient, provides the actual Germanic origin of its name, Wermut (vehr MOOT), and was widely believed to aid gastrointestinal ailments. In 1786, Turin, Italy’s Antonio Carpano was the first to produce Vermouth as a large-scale production apertivo. It became a steadfast part of the culture. Later the house of Martini and the French firm Noilly (who invented dry vermouth) also began large-scale production. Today, red sweet vermouth is considered Italian style and the pale dry versions are considered French, regardless of their origin. 

Let’s explore the Manhattan and vermouth variables. 

Three whiskies: Crown Royal, the standard of excellence in Canadian blends; Redemption Rye, excellent, classic style modern rye; and Elijah Craig “Father of Bourbon”, small batch. All are $25 to $35.

Three sweet Italian style vermouths: Martini & Rossi ($8/750 ml., Italy); Noilly Prat ($7/375 ml., France);  and (Carpano) Antica Formula ($20/375 ml., Italy), produced in small hand crafted batches from Antonio’s original recipe.

Control measure:

All have been built on the rocks, equally and carefully measured (including ice cubes) in the classic 2-1 style with a single dash of Angostura bitters and the original Maraschino cherry from Italy’s Luxardo. Magic ensues in this 14 oz. jar!  Tiny, dark, purple, intensely rich cherries bask in syrup of equal intensity ($20). No, ladies and gentlemen, these are not your everyday Manhattans! 

The Crown Royal with Martini & Rossi proved to have lovely, delicate balance, while the richer Noilly Prat showed clumsy and overly rich. The intensely spiced Carpano completely overpowered the soft, delicate Canadian blend. Questioning whether the use of more less-expensive vermouth would equal the intensity of the pricier version, a fourth example was mixed with equal parts Martini & Rossi and the whiskey. Surprisingly, this cocktail balanced very nicely also without becoming over-rich or overpowering.

The Redemption Rye and the Elijah Craig bourbon proved to be too much for the Martini & Rossi, which wilted under the whiskies’ intensity. Meanwhile, the Noilly Prat made a lovely cocktail with both, but here is where the Carpano begins to show its mettle, not just balancing with the whiskies but adding complexity, spice and depth creating truly fantastic, classic cocktails!  

While we find all of these ingredients show significant merit, unexpected pairings pleasantly surprise while others stand out, or shine magnificently! Still, one might seriously question the use of a highly prized whiskey to make a cocktail. Augmenting truly special bottlings of liquor with other ingredients reduces its character to the lowest common denominator. If it is rare enough to command a significant price, the expression of individual nuances and complexity might better be enjoyed on their own. Still, choose whatever you like, like whatever you choose and above all, ENJOY!

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