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We'll Take Manhattans

By Keir Graff

MARCH 8, 1999:  Okay, so the cocktail renaissance is over.

You can take Esquivel, Mel Torme and - unless you really like him - Frank Sinatra out of your CD player. Feel free to unplug the lava lamp, to closet your wash 'n' wear golf slacks and monogrammed aqua bowling shirt. Cocktail Nation is dead, the ersatz hipsters keeled over with their tongues dyed azure from one too many gulps of blue curaçao. In a thousand ill-conceived wet bars, drains greedily lap the final swallows of poorly-poured cosmopolitans, Tom Collins' and chocolate martinis. Yes, you no longer need to feel obligated to order concoctions you don't understand - hell, if Miller Brewing Company can be believed, you don't even need to appreciate beers with amusing names anymore. Fey connoisseurship is out, knee-jerking is back in. Given this state of events, it may seem like an odd time to celebrate a cocktail. But, trends or no, some who have acquired the taste for whiskey and gin, who have traveled beyond the bourne of a pint of suds, will never return. And while topical drinks with references to Monica Lewinsky or Ivana Trump die a deserved death after a short shelf life, a few monolithic mixological masterpieces deserve recognition no matter what the passing taste.

Thus, I give you: the Manhattan, the Greatest Drink Ever.

Like most drinks not named for their bartender, their bar of origin or pop culture heroines, the history of the Manhattan is obscured by the mists of time. It's rumored that the first Manhattan was shaken in 1846, by a Maryland bartender trying to revive an injured duelist. He mixed rye whiskey, sugar syrup and bitters - no word on the duelist, but one can assume he had a fighting chance. From there, the drink traveled to Manhattan, where, in the Gay Nineties, vermouth was substituted for syrup, paving the way for today's recipe.

What makes the Manhattan so great? People like them. In years of serving Manhattans, I've almost never failed to make a convert; compare that to martinis, where a common reaction is a polite grimace followed by a half-hour of agonized sipping and the eventual request for a fuzzy navel.

The Manhattan, properly made, is sweet but not too; a hint of bitterness appeals to those who drink their whiskey neat. The kick is strong but not overpowering, and only after a few refills do you grasp the potency of the fuel alternative sloshing in your glass. Served as a cocktail, it appeases the most BAC-hungry boozehound; on the rocks, the melting ice renders a more palatable potency for the novice or casual drinker. Such is the resiliency of the basic recipe that a Manhattan, though no longer a Manhattan, is still quite enjoyable when bourbon is replaced with Scotch, brandy or even tequila.

A Manhattan is unusual enough to afford some pleasure in ordering, yet won't make an enemy of the bartender (unlike an exquisitely layered Pousse-Cafe). It's strong, but won't peg you as a lush (unlike a Long Island Ice Tea).

Served in quality glassware, the Manhattan captures the enticing, amber jewel-quality of all bourbons, with a rosy hue rendered by the vermouth. A single maraschino cherry provides enticement to the kid in all of us, like the fruit at the bottom of a cup of yogurt.

So how to properly manufacture a Manhattan? Most bartending guides will recommend two parts bourbon to one part sweet vermouth, and some will suggest a dash of bitters. In years of knocking back Manhattans, from airport bars to wedding receptions, I've found that most so-called mixologists are unaware of this simple outline for imbibing pleasure. I've received clusters of cherries, cherry juice and even - the horror! - grenadine in my Manhattan. This turns a refined pleasure into the alcoholic equivalent of cotton candy.

My recommendation: Start with quality bourbon. Jim Beam is fine for every day, but use Maker's Mark for special occasions. As for the sweet vermouth, skip the Gallo and shell out a couple more bucks for Noilly Prat or Cinzano. Three parts bourbon, one part sweet vermouth and an assured splash of Angostura bitters. A single cherry is optional, as is eating it. If you crave more sweetness, add a bit more vermouth. Never, ever pour cherry juice into a Manhattan.

Cocktail culture may be dead, but as we slouch toward the millennium, it's also clear that it's always in style to eat, drink or wear what pleases you most. Unadorned by trendoid frippery, you may belly up to the bar, place your foot on the rail and order a Manhattan, "up." When it comes, hold that spindly glass in the air and watch the dying afternoon Chicago sun infuse your drink with an intoxicating glow. Reflect on all the years you wasted on cheap beer, then congratulate yourself on your adult taste. And the fact that you're no longer wearing a monogrammed aqua bowling shirt.


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