Essential Cocktails: How to Make, and Where to Find, the Perfect Manhattan

The second in a series of step-by-step drink tutorials from cocktail masters

You like drinking, sure, and maybe you even have a few favorite cocktails that you like to order when out and about. But do you know how to make ‘em for yourself at home? If not, stay tuned because over the next few weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few essential cocktails with which to start your home bartending career. Nothing crazy complicated, but rather, classics that everyone should have in their back pocket. I wager that after you’ve got these down, your friends will be asking you to bartend at their parties…. Um, OK, so maybe we won’t tell them about your new skills. And for the non-DIYers, I’ll include *THE* places to get the best example of the spotlighted cocktails.

Essential Cocktails, Week 2: The Manhattan

Classic cocktail purists will get up in arms if you mess with the original technique or ingredients of their favorite drink, but I’ve never seen anyone get as ornery as Manhattan cocktail fans do if you dare to shake this brown, stirred drink. And despite what well-respected cocktail author David Wondrich says, shaking a Manhattan is plain wrong. So very wrong. (We’ll explain why later.)

To back me up on this, I sought out bartender Sam Ross for this week’s Manhattan-themed edition of Essential Cocktails. Ross is well known for his cocktail program at New York’s Milk & Honey, and has assembled the drinks lists locally at chef David Myers’ restaurants: the new Hinoki & the Bird in Century City, and West Hollywood’s Comme Ça.

Ross is the mixologist who specializes in creating cocktail programs featuring modern twists on classics, and word on the street is that he’ll make you the best classic cocktail you’ve ever had. So naturally when he was in town from New York to train the staff at Hinoki I asked him if he could stop by Comme Ça (since Hinoki wasn’t open yet) to demonstrate how to make my favorite drink ever. And, naturally I’d have to taste it to, ahem, complete my “research.” Fortunately he agreed.

According to Ross, a Manhattan is all about the vermouth. “People don’t realize that vermouth oxidizes, which means it goes bad. It is fortified, but not to the point where it’s shelf stable forever like a spirit is. So it needs to be refrigerated or kept on ice. And you need to go through it regularly.” Unfortunately his favorite vermouth—Carpano Antica—is only available in 1-liter bottles, so if you don’t go through that quickly, it can mess up your Manhattan.

But he has a fix for that: “For home use if you like Antica, get a six-pack of Canada Dry club soda or whatever, drink it, pour it out, whatever you need to do, but refill the little bottles right to the top with Antica, seal it, and keep them in your fridge. And just take out one of the little bottles when you need it; that will keep it fresh for a long time. That’s a Sam Ross original right there.” This way, there isn’t much air in there to oxidize the vermouth as quickly and you won’t have to keep opening and closing the same bottle through the short life of the vermouth.

Manhattan cocktail recipe
by Sam Ross, Hinoki & the Bird

2 to 3 heavy-handed dashes of Angostura bitters
1 oz Antica Carpano sweet vermouth
2 oz Bulleit Rye whisky
Brandied cherry, for garnish

1) Add all three ingredients to a mixing glass.
2) Add a few large cubes of ice. (You don’t want to add ice before the ingredients because as soon as the liquid comes in contact with the ice, it starts melting and diluting the cocktail, and you want to be control of that up until the very last second.)
3) Stir it, strain it and serve it up with a brandied cherry. (You use a cherry garnish versus a twist here, as twists are only used traditionally in so-called “Perfect Manhattans,” which are made with a combination of dry and sweet vermouths.)

More info…
Just as there’s a debate about using vodka or gin in a martini, so too is there a bourbon versus rye whisky feud with Manhattans. Ross asserts, “Rye is your traditional Manhattan ingredient, but bourbons are a perfectly acceptable thing. Ryes are a bit more astringent… a bit drier. Because bourbon is primarily made from corn, it tends to be a little fatter, a little sweeter.”

  • Recommended rye whisky: Sazerac Rye, Russell’s Reserve 6 Year Old Kentucky Straight Rye Whisky, Rittenhouse Rye
  • Recommended bourbon: Buffalo Trace, Elijah Craig 12 Year Old, Eagle Rare 10 Year Old
  • Recommended vermouth: Dolin Sweet (Rouge) Vermouth or Cocchi Vermouth di Torino (Rosso) work well, though Carpano Antica is Ross’ hands-down favorite. “I’d christen my first-born in Antica,” he swears.

So why is shaking a Manhattan sacrilegious? “When you shake a drink, you’re aerating it, and you’re chilling and diluting it. That’s essential to something like a daiquiri because something with citrus should be really sprightly and almost effervescent on the tongue. When you’re talking about something like a martini, a Manhattan or a Negroni, there’s no citrus, there’s no eggs. It’s spirit on spirit. It’s going to be more of a sipper, something that’s consumed a little slower and it should be velvety smooth and heavy. You don’t want air bubbles in something like this. So the rule is: if you can see through it, you stir it. If you can’t see through it, you shake it.

If you’d rather have someone make a Manhattan for you, stop by Cole’s downtown for its “professionals’ lunch special” where a Manhattan will only set you back $5 with the purchase of a French dip sandwich. For a Manhattan that will put hair on your chest, bartender Dino Balocchi at Littlefork in Hollywood mixes up what he calls a “Stagghattan” with George T. Stagg bourbon, Sazerac Rye, and Punt e Mes vermouth. Mid-Wilshire, Paul Sanguinetti of Ray’s and Stark Bar doubles the fun with two ryes—Old Overholt and Michter’s—Carpano Antica, and Amaro Nonino (a bitter Italian liqueur). For variety, Comme Ça has a “Manhattan Variation” on its menu where you leave it to the bartender to come up with something to suit your tastes, whether you’re in the mood for a classic Manhattan, a rum Manhattan, or a Greenpoint Manhattan—a lighter, brighter version made with Evan Williams bourbon, Carpano Antica, and Yellow Chartreuse.

If you’d like more of Sam Ross’ nifty cocktail tips, he has an iPhone/iPad app called Bartender’s Choice ($2.99) which is built to make you feel like you’re sitting at a menuless bar, with a bartender talking you through the drinks and telling you which ones are best suited for what you’re craving.