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A Treatise on Tending Bar – Part One: Sour

It’s six thirty at night. It’s taken you an hour and a half to drive twenty miles on the highway. As you finally pull off the exit, you sigh in relief. You’re meeting your wife, her co-worker, and her co-worker’s husband for dinner. You don’t really know the other couple, but after the day you just had, you can’t even think that far ahead. As the light turns green you make the turn and pull swiftly into the parking lot of the hottest new restaurant in town. Your wife’s been talking about it for months and even though you really should be home working on that assignment your boss gave you three weeks ago, a little R&R might do you some good. You park the car, hop out, and adjust your scarf to cover your ears. It’s mid-January and there’s a storm on the way. You hurry inside, nod to the hostess and spot your group at the bar. After introductions are made you grab mightily at the drink list. Hmm… strange beer selection. What kind of wine is this? A cocktail menu? You just want a drink, dammit. How hard can this be?

This shit is overwhelming, I get it. I see it every night. There’s the scratching of heads when a familiar product is sight unseen on the wine list, confusion when there’s no domestic light beer on tap, and a propensity to stare at my cocktail menu as if, perhaps, it were written in cuneiform. I get it, I do. And I sympathize. I’m here to guide you through this, you’re here to relax and enjoy. My job is about changing mindsets, and that starts with what is, and moves to what can be. Despite much of the hard work these past ten or so years (over 25 if you go back to the Rainbow Room and Dale Degroff), to elevate the craft of bartending to a level commensurate with any other respectable profession, there is still something about the beverage side of the service industry that fails to change on a grand level . Despite my initial frustration in the moment, a step back lays the protracted issue at the feet of the service industry itself, and more specifically its management. If we were all doing this the same way, to the best of our abilities and held to the highest standard, the one who would benefit the most is the guest. But we’re not, and the guest suffers. In this series, we will explore why our business needed a revolution, and how all of us, on both sides of the bar, can better contribute to its positive growth.

Prohibition dealt a death blow to my profession. To be fair, not every barman that existed before January 17, 1920 was flinging bottles over their shoulders and slapping sprigs of basil to lay over their cocktails. Just like any vocation, there was a hierarchy of talent and skill, but it existed as a profession, nonetheless. Tending bar was considered a trade. There was no cocktail bar bartender versus dive bar bartender. They were all the same, performing their part in slightly different ways depending on their demographic. Most likely, the head bartender at an establishment was either the owner, or had been hand-selected by ownership to deliver not only quality product and service, but train the younger, less experienced staff in the art of the craft. There was still apprenticeship, and close study allowed the trainee the possibility of a larger role, and eventually a bar all his own. Once the service and sale of “intoxicating” beverages became illegal, those that wanted to continue in the business either sought work in Europe or Cuba, or switched over to the less reputable, speak-easy side of the law. It became every man for himself.

The dark years of Prohibition saw the end of an era. While all industries must adapt to industrialization and the push to economies of scale (just ask the local American farmer,) in reality no other specific profession has ever suffered the swift and precise death blow like that of the American Bartender. To make an analogy, imagine you are a carpenter, and carpentry is made illegal (the government has done stranger things, I assure you.) The world would likely learn to build with another material. Metal? Stone? With a family to feed you might choose to learn masonry, or help build skyscrapers, or maybe even switch to another trade like plumbing. Then, one day, carpentry becomes legal again. But the world has moved on, adapted to life without it. Some aspiring entrepreneur sees the massive overgrowth of trees in American forests and decides to reintroduce the profession. The problem? No one remembers how to build with wood anymore. But capitalism pushes its way forward, and a new breed of carpenter begins to construct their own way, using novel techniques and innovative tools. Maybe, the trade is made more profitable. Maybe the fresh methods improve the industry as a whole. But you harken back to memories of how it once was, before things changed, when it was a labor of love, and not just a business.

This isn’t the study of the long-term social and political effects of Prohibition on the United States. That battle is best kept to future posts. What is worth mentioning, however, is the deliberate and purposeful obliteration of an entire industry by the federal government, the likes of which had never been seen before, and haven’t been seen since. As noted by Jack S. Blocker Jr., a renounced scholar on Prohibition and the American Temperance Movement, there existed in 1916 1300 breweries producing full-strength beer in the U.S. Ten years later, there were zero. Over the same time frame 85% of distilleries went out of business, the rest surviving on the production of industrial alcohol. “Legal production of near beer used less than one tenth the amount of malt, one twelfth the rice and hops, and one thirtieth the corn used to make full-strength beer before National Prohibition. The 318 wineries of 1914 became the 27 of 1925. The number of liquor wholesalers was cut by 96% and the number of legal retailers by 90%. From 1919 to 1929, federal tax revenues from distilled spirits dropped from $365 million to less than $13 million, and revenue from fermented liquors from $117 million to virtually nothing.” This is worth mentioning because we are still seeing the effects of it today. As Blocker summarizes, “To wipe out a long-established and well-entrenched industry, to change drinking habits on a large scale, and to sweep away such a central urban and rural social institution as the saloon are no small achievements.”

The decades following prohibition saw a rise in quick, pre-portioned, RTE foods and drinks. Even though Prohibition ended in 1933, distilled alcohol was essentially commandeered a second time to aid in the war effort. The beer and liquor surviving World War Two was a shell of itself, and the mixed drink scene was one often fashioned and perpetuated by the industry itself. See my post on the Moscow Mule for an example. While some great cocktails were invented in the decades leading up to and following the Second World War (see Manhattan Musings,) most were refashioned slop from the Prohibition years, or copious amounts of booze in a glass, hidden beneath bottled juices and cheap flavored liqueurs. Because whiskey stocks need time to age, Americans turned to Canada, Scotland, and Ireland for their brown liquor. American blended whiskey, because of its quick production time, found a home in American glasses. Vodka and Gin, themselves needing no time in the cask, ran rampant. Beer drinkers, having grown accustomed to adjunct-laden near beer, were quick to embrace macro-brewed lagers that would eventually grow into the tasteless domestics of today.

Americans were devoting time and resources to war, and in the years after, to raising families and earning a living. The average drinker was no longer concerned with the sporting lifestyle of the pre-Prohibition era. Prohibition had trained the drinker to drink as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and preferably in a way that masked the awful taste of the inferior quality spirit used. When Prohibition ended, bad habits continued on both sides of the bar. With no trained barmen to offer the customer a quality drink, and customers who either didn’t care or want one anyway, the craft of the bar was seemingly lost for good. This new trend ran concurrent with two others, technology and large-scale marketing, to produce a viral-like trifecta perpetuating the continued demise of the trade. The downward spiral would last half a century, and although some good came of it (as some good always has a propensity to do,) most of it was debilitating. In an age with TV dinners and Kool Aid, who could be bothered with fresh recipe and flavors? Before Prohibition, mixed drinks like sours, fizzes, fixes, and daisies used fresh juices and imported cane sugar. By the 1950’s and 60’s, pre-packaged, powdered sour mixes were the norm rather than fresh lemons and limes. The mixes contained high-fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners, just re-hydrate with water and you’re in business. We were too busy, in too much of a rush to worry about ingredients. Just make it taste good.

It is only because of some pioneering and daring bartenders like Dale DeGroff, that a renewed focus on fresh ingredients in the bar trade was revitalized. Tapped, in the mid 1980’s, by famed restaurateur Joe Baum to helm the stick at New York City’s newly renovated Rainbow Room, DeGroff was given the monumental task of creating the first bar menu in the city with entirely fresh ingredients. After months of exhausting research, Degroff succeeded, and modern bartending was born. For a great read, check out Craft of the Cocktail, here, or Degroff’s website, here.

So what’s so bad about sour mix anyway? Why go through all the trouble to squeeze lemons and limes? Why not just squirt some pre-mixed yellow-tinged lemon water from a soda gun at the bar? It’s got sweetness mixed in, so that saves another step, and we’re three deep on a Saturday night, so who cares? Surprisingly, almost everyone who tastes one next to the other. A fresh sour is remarkable for its crisp acidity, clean sweetness, and ability to refresh as well as whet the appetite, not suppress it. And just like the slow food movement and farm to fork dining proved, over the last decade, how fresh is best, a quick glance at the label on a box of commercial sour mix may help me do the same. Sorry, Al, whomever you are….

sourmix

Confused about what these ingredients are? Leave it to me:

Sodium Benzoate: a food preservative, a salt derived from benzoic acid. When you combine an acid and a base, you get a salt. Mix sodium hydroxide with benzoic acid, you get sodium benzoate. (Sodium Hydroxide plus hydrochloric acid equals sodium chloride (table salt), and so on.) Sodium Benzoate works very well at killing bacteria, yeast, and fungi. It will only work in a high acid environment, where the pH of a food is less than 3.6. It does not occur naturally in foods. Government regulations allow no more than .1% by weight to be added to products. If you combine ascorbic acid (vitamin C) with sodium benzoate, you get benzene, a known carcinogen. The leading cause of benzene in soft drinks is due to the decarboxylation (removing a carboxyl group, releasing CO2 gas) of benzoic acid in the presence of vitamin C. You may be surprised to hear Coca-Cola is phasing out sodium benzoate from many of its drinks, but not Fanta and Sprite. As of now, Coke Zero still contains potassium salt (a form of benzoate.) So… what if the bartender mixes orange juice into your cocktail containing sour mix? Cancer anybody?

Potassium Sorbate: produced by neutralizing potassium hydroxide with sorbic acid, this colorless salt is very soluble in water, and used to inhibit molds and yeasts, and increase shelf life in foods and soft drinks.

Sodium Hexametaphosphate: scientific theory suggests that the antimicrobial effects of sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, can be greatly enhanced with the addition of polyphosphates, such as sodium hexametaphosphate. It behaves synergistically with preservatives to allow manufacturers to reduce the amount of the other ingredients in the system, while maintaining the same shelf life. Think of it as a steroid for preservatives.

Sodium Citrate: The sodium salt of citric acid, it has a salty, sour taste. It gives club soda, and most lemon-lime soft drinks, their sour and salty flavors. It increases the tartness of foods, and aids in preservation. It is nearly identical to citric acid, in that citrate is simply the form in which citric acid exists at neutral acidity, and is combined with sodium, which separates from citrate in water. This is why you get a salt and sour flavor.

Citric Acid: a small molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. All acids taste sour, but not all acids are edible. Citric acid is both acidic and edible. It can be added to foods to preserve, impart a sour flavor, emulsify fats, prevent crystallization of sucrose, or in place of fresh lemon juice. While citric acid tastes sour, it doesn’t taste like lemons. It may be easier to demonstrate the difference using vitamin C, as an example, compared with orange juice. Help yourself to a supplement bottle’s worth of vitamin c, in a form that dissolves in your mouth. Taste the orange? Now drink some 100% fresh squeezed OJ. Taste the same?

Pectin: a naturally occurring polysaccharide, found in berries, and other fruits. When heated with sugar, it causes thickening, characteristic of jellies and jams.

Quillia (or Quillaia, if you want to spell it correctly): the milled, inner bark, or small stems and branches of the soapbark. Also called China bark extract, Murillo bark extract, Panama bark extract, and Quillai extract. It can be taken for cough, bronchitis, or applied to skin to treat sores, athlete’s foot, and itchy scalp. It can be found in dandruff-fighting shampoos, as well as hair tonic, and even in douches for vaginal discharges. Yum! So how is it used in sour mix? As a foaming agent. The same application used in fire extinguishers. In South America, quillaia bark is used to wash clothes. It works because of a high concentration of tannins, very astringent chemicals. They thin mucus, making it easier to cough up. As a plus, one website claims quillaia contains a chemical that may help stimulate the immune system.

You’re on your own with the sweetener blend, the sour flavor, and the cloud #whatever. I don’t think there’s much more to say about this. Still want this crap in your drink? Only together, bartenders and customers, can we demand better from ourselves and others. Revolutions are slow, but then they gain critical mass and eventually become the status quo. In the next post, we will explore how the revolution began, how it’s made some mistakes along the way, and how we can work together to make it perfect.

In closing, allow me to offer two recipes that can aid in your development of proper technique, and will lead to a tasty cocktail every time. Substitute different liquor for different flavor profiles, and once you master this, start to swap out the sugar and the triple sec for other sweeteners, both non-alcoholic and liqueurs.

The Sour

  • 2oz – 2¼ oz Spirit (Whiskey, Gin, Vodka, etc)
  • 3/4oz – 1oz freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
  • .5oz 2:1 (2 parts sugar to 1 part water) non-alcoholic simple syrup
  • Shake with ice and double strain up into a chilled cocktail glass, or over freshly cracked ice in a rocks glass (Some say pouring over ice makes this a Fix)
  • I like to garnish whiskey sours with a lemon twist, gin and vodka sours with a lemon wheel, and rum sours (daiquiris) with a lime wheel. Lime twists can have overpowering flavor profiles. You might reserve one for a more assertive, funky rum like Ron Zacapa 23yr.

The Daisy (Brandy for a Sidecar, Tequila for a Margarita, etc)

  • 2oz Spirit
  • 3/4oz – 1oz freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice
  • 3/4oz – 1oz triple sec or curacao (Cointreau, Triplum, or other brand)
  • Shake with ice and double strain up into a chilled cocktail glass, or over freshly cracked ice in a rocks glass.
  • Take note of garnish for specific drink. Salt rim for a margarita, sugar for a sidecar. Lime for a margarita, orange for a sidecar.

Slainte!

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The Negroni – Perfection in an Imperfect World

Photo: Adam Patrick

Photo: Adam Patrick

The year is 1919. Italy is on the brink of Fascist revolution. The war has left over half a million Italians dead, the country in massive debt, and inflation soaring. The promises made by the Triple Entente of Britain, France, and Russia are largely ignored by the Treaty of Versailles, leaving the Italians humiliated, politically. The country is in turmoil; factions of nationalists, communists, and those loyal to Benito Mussolini struggle to gain a foothold in power. The future for the Italian people is unquestionably uncertain.

The city is Florence, the spot is Caffe Casoni, and the bartender manning the stick is Fosco “Gloomy” Scarselli. As Count Camillo Negroni enters the café, the political, social, and economic chaos of the day is the furthest thing from his mind. He sits down at a corner table, scans the room, and motions for Scarselli to come, with a slight wave of his hand. As the barman approaches, he never anticipates the importance of what is about to transpire. Italy, in the midst of bedlam, is about to contribute something unintentionally remarkable to the annals of history.

Camillo Negroni, in addition to being a count, was a noted playboy, gambler, socialite, and notorious drinker. He was born in Florence in 1868 to an Italian father and English mother, both of prominent aristocracy. Having fathered an illegitimate child, he fled Italy and settled in the United States, eventually becoming a cattle rancher somewhere south of Saskatchewan, Canada. He spent time in London, among other places, acquiring a taste for good, dry gin. He returned to Italy in 1912, and eventually was allowed back into Florence, where he became a regular face in bars around the city. He would break daily for a drink at the Grand Hotel, and on the way would stop to see his friend, one Fosco Scarselli, proprietor at the Caffe Casoni.

The Americano was a popular cocktail in Italy at the time, perhaps the quintessential Italian aperitivo. It’s a fine drink, indeed, but lacks a bit of “kick” as one might say. Its roots lay in two popular liquors of the day, Campari and Vermouth. Gaspare Campari, already a master drink-maker by the ripe age of 14, developed his eponymous liqueur, and began selling it at his own café in the 1860’s. Containing more than 60 ingredients, including herbs and botanicals like orange peels, rhubarb, wormwood, pomegranate, quinine, clove, and ginseng, Campari is big, bold, and bitter, the perfect drink to stimulate the appetite. Combined with Italian vermouth, herbaceous and sweet, and lightened up with a bit of sparkling water, the drink was graceful and refreshing, perfect for relaxed café life. The Americano was essentially a “long” version of a Milano-Torino cocktail, which was Campari (from Milan) mixed with Martini & Rossi vermouth (made in Turin). The Milano-Torino, in turn, was a sweetened up, Milanese version of cocktail that mixed Campari with Amaro Cora (a light, sweet, Italian bitters with orange and cinnamon notes.) The origin of the name likely came from American expats who wanted to lighten up the drink a bit with familiar soda water.

It’s doubtful that Camillo knew any of this as he saddled up to his favorite table and waved to his friend Fosco that fateful day in 1919. What’s certain is that the Count wasn’t looking for something light and familiar. He demanded an Americano, but no soda water was to be included. Instead, an equal portion of gin should be substituted, and it should be done immediately. As word of this new, vibrant concoction swept across the city, everyday tipplers began asking for their Americanos in the “Negroni way,” and a phenomenon was born. The Negroni family would go on to found the Negroni Distillerie in Treviso, Italy, and produce a canned ready-to-drink version of the cocktail called Antico Negroni 1919. Orson Welles, while working in Rome on Cagliostro in 1947 described the drink as such, “The bitters are excellent for your liver; the gin is bad for you. They balance each other out.”

The Negroni had its fans in the states, but for the most part lived in Europe, as the black cloud of Prohibition cast its shadow over America. Those bartenders that either didn’t switch over to the non-alcoholic side of the beverage industry, or take part in bootlegging or speakeasy activities during Prohibition likely found work overseas in bars such as Harry’s in Paris. Here, great variations on the Negroni took place, such as the Old Pal and the Boulevardier. While you can find traces of the Negroni and its variants in cocktail books from the mid-20th century, it was the modern craft cocktail revolution that really revived the drink, and for good reason. It’s the perfect cocktail.

The Negroni is perfection, as good a quaff as can be quaffed. For the most part, the best of the classic cocktails all revolve around three ingredients. The Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, The Martinez, the Martini (before bitters escaped the equation), the Sour, the Daisy, and eventually, much later, the Negroni. And when you think about it, they’re all essentially based on the idea of Strong, Bitter/Sour, and Sweet. They’re balanced. No one component runs rampant over the other. But other cocktails are flawed in their approach only by being sometimes unapproachable. The Martini at breakfast? Alas, I admit to it, but try cramming some pancakes and eggs into your stomach after a couple martinis, and you’re in for a world of hurt. A Margarita with dinner? Sure, I suppose if it’s summer, you’re preparing tacos, you know when in Rome and all that. A Manhattan before bed? We’ve all been there, but in no rush to go back. Every one of these drinks has its time and place, just not every time and place. The Negroni is the exception.

You can drink a Negroni at any time of the day, any day of the year, for any reason you like. It works to settle your stomach and increase your appetite. You can drink it with breakfast, you can drink it with lunch, you can drink it at dinner, and you can drink it at two in the morning after your shift at the restaurant. If it’s snowing, a Negroni warms you. If it’s a hot day in August and you’re sitting by the pool, pour yourself a refreshing Negroni. It’s beautiful mix of strong, bitter, and sweet that has no equal and no competition. You can drink it on the rocks or you can drink it up. You can even shake it (gasp!) and it doesn’t lose any of its punch. Almost every bar on the planet has the ingredients to make it, and even if the bartender doesn’t know what they’re doing, the drink is still drinkable. It lends itself to massive interpretations, its variants winning awards for simply substituting one ingredient for another. Like it more bitter? Try Cynar instead of Vermouth. Like it sweeter? How about Aperol for Campari. Like it stronger? Double the Gin. Like it a different color? Use Lillet Blanc or Cocchi Americano instead of vermouth. Dump the Gin in favor of Whiskey and you have a Boulevardier. Take that and swap the sweet vermouth for dry and you have an Old Pal. It’s a template for simple perfection. Don’t feel like measuring? You can get away with it in this one, I don’t care what anybody says. Of course, not all of these variants are equally perfect, but that’s what makes the Negroni what it is. Perfection leaves you the ability to be imperfect and still be delicious.

The modern cocktail resurgence has proved to have the massive staying power necessary to propel it past a trend. However, as with any culturally relevant anything, there are those who bastardize it. Future posts may dive into the hipster douchiness that has invaded our business on both sides of the bar, but for now it’s important to make note of the fact that the Negroni doesn’t fall victim to irony. Unlike past bastions of imbibing that may have been championed solely for their history, (I’m looking at you The Aviation and The Algonquin; why do people think you taste good?) the Negroni should not be seen as proof that you “get it.” That is to lose the point. The Negroni is the anti-cocktail, the anti-trend. It’s the least intimidating, most accessible drink you can order. If you want the bartender to know you’re a bartender too, order some Fernet. Leave the Negroni to the masses. Let the people come to us and relax, revel, bask in the wonder that is our bar, our home, our temple. Let them be welcomed in and not alienated. This thing is our thing to share and to grow. Let them appreciate what we have worked so hard to change. Let them see what they didn’t know existed. This is the gateway drug, the first rung of the ladder, the point of no return. This is perfection in an imperfect world.

THE NEGRONI

1oz London Dry Gin, 80 proof (Tanqueray, Beefeater)  [Step it up to 1.5oz  Perry’s Tot or Martin Miller’s Navy Strength]

1oz Campari

1oz Sweet Vermouth (Dolin, Noilly Prat) [Step it to Carpano Antica Formula]

Stir with ice and pour over new ice in a rocks glass. Garnish with an orange slice.

THE BITTER END (Adam Patrick)

1.5oz Perry’s Tot Gin

1oz Breckinridge Bitters

1oz Carpano Antica Formula

1/8oz house-made Orange Cardamom Bitters

stir with ice and strain up in a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange peel.

 

Slainte!

Manhattan Musings

IMG_20121014_132621 (3)

Last year, I surprised my father by bringing over the liquor, and necessary equipment, to make Manhattan cocktails when I visited for Christmas dinner. I don’t recall the impetus behind the decision to do this, but when one is talking cocktails, any reason usually suffices. I learned something that night however, which was that my grandparents had apparently been huge Manhattan drinkers. My father recalled, as a child, making my grandparents Manhattans On The Rocks on more than several occasions, pouring liquor from two different bottles over ice in a small glass, never stirring it, and never using bitters. Likely, no garnish as well, a recipe so basic and lacking in technique I can hear your inner mixologist wailing in disapproval. We discussed among those at the table the possible whiskeys and vermouths that could have been used. Although he couldn’t remember the brands, my knowledge of the available liquor in the 50’s and 60’s leads me to believe I was most likely serving my father the best Manhattan he had ever laid eyes on. But, it’s all really quite subjective, isn’t it?

First, some history. The Manhattan predates virtually all of the cocktails we have become familiar with. It’s the granddaddy of the Martini, and the cousin of the Old Fashioned. It stands alone as simultaneously unchanged by time, yet ever-changing, tweaked by bartenders to suit individual tastes, yet never veering too far off the path of original conceptualization. Likely invented in the mid-1800’s, the most popular story of its creation involves an 1874 party thrown at the Manhattan Club in New York City to celebrate the election of newly elected Governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, and the club’s official history claims this. What causes skepticism, however is that Jennie Jerome (Lady Randolph Churchill), Winston Churchill’s mother, was said to be at this party and that the drink was her idea. It has been proven, however, that the fine Lady was actually in England at the time, at the very Christening of young Winston. More likely, is the story told by one William F. Mulhall, a bartender at the Hoffman House in New York in the latter decades of the 19th century, in which he claims, “The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black, who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the [eighteen-] sixties – probably the most famous drink in the world in its time.” Personally, I like to credit bartenders with the invention of drinks, not socialites.

Whatever its origin, the drink took hold of the tippling public, and over the years the recipes changed subtly into the drink we are familiar with today. Two parts rye whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, a few dashes of bitters. As bartenders, we often get hung up on recipes, but really our job is all about themes. While it’s important to know why you’re using the ingredients you’ve chosen, the proportions, and the palate of the modern day drinker, more than not a cocktail can be best understood thematically. The Old Fashioned is as much about the idea of slinging back booze as the White Russian is. Every cocktail is designed with the intent to season or change the taste of alcohol from one of unpleasant flavor to one that has been deemed delicious by the recipient. If you want to taste alcohol, you drink alcohol, booze in a glass. Cocktails are another animal altogether. So what then, differs one from the next? If I add absinthe or maraschino liqueur to a Manhattan does it remain a Manhattan? If I served this drink to a customer who ordered a Manhattan, would they look at me as if I had never set foot behind a bar in my life? What if I explained to them that the man we credit as being literally the father of our craft is credited in print in 1887 with this very same recipe? Likely, our weary customer would tell me to stick it and walk out of my bar. But if I named it something else… let’s say the Black Rock Cocktail, would I be on to something? I think we’ve all gotten a bit too uptight. We’re drinking, after all, not splitting the atom.

Author and renowned cocktail historian David Wondrich has it pretty well summed up. As he explains, the Vermouth Cocktail, popular in the mid-1800’s, was something of a lackluster experience, not all that boozy, but profitable to the bar owner in that the customer would likely need several to get tipsy. The Whiskey Cocktail (read: Old Fashioned) was just the opposite. Packed a punch, but knocked you off your stool. The Manhattan was something of a compromise. Boozy and flavorful, yet diluted enough to allow one to maintain his gentlemanly demeanor. If you’re wondering how the Manhattan, with its generally accepted two ounces of whiskey could possibly be weaker than an Whiskey Cocktail with the same amount of liquor, I must explain that Manhattans didn’t always contain higher amounts of whiskey than vermouth. In fact, the earliest recorded recipes had as much as twice as much vermouth to whiskey.

Now, it all starts to come together thematically. The Manhattan isn’t as much about measuring exactly two ounces of whiskey, one ounce of vermouth and a few dashes of bitters, so much as it is about adding vermouth to a Whiskey Cocktail and seasoning it up a bit, or whiskey to a Vermouth cocktail and strengthening that up a bit. If one wanted to add a dash of curacao, or a pinch of maraschino, why not do so? Depending on the vermouth and bitters you choose, will there not be a hint of orange or cherry anyway? And what about absinthe? Last time I checked, both absinthe and vermouth use wormwood and other similar flavoring agents. Theme? Check.

What doesn’t work? If you’re going to flip the proportions and pour two parts vermouth, one part whiskey, you’re going to need a helluva whiskey. Don’t try this with Maker’s Mark or you’re going to end up with a sloppy mess. I recommend Elijah Craig Cask Strength Bourbon, clocking in at 140 proof, or George T Stagg, at a staggering 144 proof. The TSA won’t even allow these whiskeys in a carry-on bag! Sounds good enough to me. But if you’re going the traditional route, and the recipe that has now become the norm is your thing, you’re going to want a nice boozy, spicy rye, and vermouth with some backbone. Skip the bourbon in this version of the drink if you can, and pick up some rye in the 100 proof arena, something like Willet or WhistlePig. Smooth Ambler Rye from West Virginia is another fine option and a little eclectic. Always go with Carpano Antica vermouth when adhering to this formula. If your, or your guest’s preference demands bourbon or something less boozy, let’s say Buffalo Trace or Old Overholt, go with Dolin or Noilly Prat vermouth, so it doesn’t overpower the whiskey. Adjust your bitters to taste. I use Angostura (and lots of it), as do most bartenders, but I’ve had the drink with orange bitters and it’s quite tasty. Older recipes have included Boker’s Bitters, Peruvian Bitters, maraschino liqueur, Chartreuse, absinthe, and a host of other crazy ingredients. Experiment, but don’t forget the theme. When beginning in the bartending trade, it’s always advisable to learn the most basic form of a drink first, master that, and then progress to variants.

On the subject of garnishes, it is generally agreed upon that a cherry should adorn this cocktail in some respect. Please keep that neon-red nonsense for your ice cream sundae, and pick up a jar or two of Luxardo Maraschino cherries, or Filthy Amarena Cherries, the latter being my personal favorite. Early recipes, pre-dating prohibition rarely listed garnishes for the Manhattan, and it wasn’t until later that the cherry was added. Some bartenders prefer a lemon or orange peel in this drink, and I don’t disagree. Carpano Vermouth goes well with an orange peel, and if I’m using a boozy rye, the drink doesn’t suffer for it. I never drop the peel in the glass, however. The cherry’s already in the glass, and we don’t need a fruit salad messing up an otherwise perfect cocktail.

THE MANHATTAN COCKTAIL

2oz WhistlePig 110 Rye

1oz Carpano Antica Vermouth

3-4 dashes of Angostura Bitters

Stir over ice in a mixing glass until very cold, and strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Garnish with an Amarena cherry.

Slainte!

image: Adam Patrick

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