Drink: The Manhattan – fall’s ultimate cocktail

by Charles Upchurch

photographs by Juli Leonard

Fall is woodsmoke. Football and oyster roasts. Leaves gone to gold.

All of this nostalgia calls for a drink. Better yet, a cocktail. Something that captures the sublime and fleeting magic of the season.

In the chill and early dusk, nothing fits the bill like a Manhattan. Just the thought of its urbane blend of whisky, sweet vermouth and bitters conjures up strains of Sarah Vaughan singing Autumn in New York.

“The Manhattan is the granddaddy of cocktails,” says Alex Flynn, bartender at Foundation in downtown Raleigh. “It’s simple, sexy and evokes something enduring.”

Matty Bettinger, who holds court at the Glenwood South speakeasy C Grace, describes the Manhattan as having a rare, indelible quality that marks the passage of time by making it – if only for a moment – stand still.

“Drinks like the Manhattan certainly trigger sense memory,” said Bettinger, “like a fragrance or a piece of music can – maybe that’s the idea.”

Indeed, part of a cocktail’s mystique is that it can connect us to another time. Think Don Draper and Roger Sterling. Now go back even further, past the war, past the Roaring Twenties and prohibition, back to 19th century New York City.

Jeanette Jerome was a beautiful Brooklyn girl. She worked as a magazine writer in the city before marrying a titled British aristocrat. As legend has it, the young Lady Randolph Churchill hosted a party at the Manhattan Club and charged the staff with creating a signature drink for the event. The concoction of rye, sweet vermouth and bitters was a hit. Soon, all over town the smart set was requesting the Manhattan Cocktail. It was 1874.

Splendor in a glass 

Back to the present: There are a handful of bars here in Raleigh that tee up a splendid Manhattan. But don’t skip to my short list just yet. There’s more to learn.

Any barman with Bulleit 95, Rittenhouse or Sazerac within reach will make your Manhattan with rye. After nearly disappearing in recent decades, rye has made a comeback. The sharp, peppery taste dovetails beautifully with sweet vermouth. Add bitters and a cherry or orange twist and you have splendor in a glass.

Some recipes allow for Canadian or other blended whiskies.  Use scotch and you’re drinking a Rob Roy. It is acceptable, however – and my personal preference – to request for your Manhattan that bluegrass-born Southern treasure we call bourbon.

In his piquant essay on sour mash, the novelist Walker Percy implores, “never monkey around with a good bourbon.” As a New Orleans denizen and a UNC man, WP knew his way around a bourbon drink.

Whisky martini, anyone?

To apprise the uninitiated: The Manhattan is akin to a whisky martini. Like a martini, it can be served on ice (Hemingway hated the slang “on the rocks,” ergo, on ice), but where’s the fun in that? Serve it up.

Start with two jiggers of excellent bourbon.  For my money, Evan Williams Black Label is fine bourbon at an excellent price. At Foundation, Alex Flynn leans toward drier, rye-heavy bourbons like Bulleit and Eagle Rare for Manhattan making. At C Grace, Bettinger opts for Knob Creek or similar small-batch selections with sweeter profiles. “If they don’t want rye,” says Bettinger, “I’m going the other way, probably dialing the vermouth back a little.”

Ah, vermouth. It was a hearty soul who first mixed fortified wine and hard spirits. For decades, cocktails were made with larger portions of vermouth than typically used today. The Manhattan was likely the first cocktail to use it, predating the Martini. Sweet vermouth brands vary widely in taste, but the pros at Foundation, C Grace and Fox Liquor Bar swear by Carpano Antica ($35.99/litre at Raleigh Wine Shop). Carpano invented sweet vermouth, circa 1786. Its luscious depth of flavor lives up to its birthright, and with it a Manhattan lives up to its name.

Dry vermouth makes a dry Manhattan. Equal parts sweet and dry vermouth make what is called a perfect Manhattan. But let’s get serious.

Two ounces of bourbon (or rye) and a short ounce of sweet vermouth. The key is not to over-do the vermouth. Just enough to subtly soften the whisky but not upstage it. Combine in a mixing cup with ice and dash in a few quick bursts of Angostura bitters. Stir until cold and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish.

Admire your work. Let the light of the golden hour pass through it. Luminescent, orange-amber and ageless, it will soothe your ragged soul.

As you sip, consider: It is still debated whether Lady Randolph Churchill truly did inspire the original Manhattan. It comes down, at the end of the day, to a question of timing. In November of 1874, near the time of the party at the Manhattan Club, the spirited Lady Randolph was also reported to be in Oxfordshire, at Blenheim Palace. Her first son, Winston, was born at Blenheim on the 30th of that month, after all. Either way, I’m sure you’ll agree: Civilization owes Jennie
Jerome a debt of gratitude.