Manhattan Variations: Riffing on this Cocktail Classic

October 21, 2020

Sometimes the simplest cocktails offer the most room for exploration. Take the case of the Manhattan, one of the few cocktails to have maintained a foothold in the drinking world across the generations. It even made it through the dark cocktail days of the ’80s and ’90s. A three ingredient classic, and one of the most well-known and widespread cocktails, the Manhattan is simple and pure. As such, when tasting through these Manhattan variations you’ll see how the drink has such potential for riffing and tweaking.

The Manhattan rightly deserves its place amid the Mt. Rushmore of cocktails, and has a lengthy history stretching back a century and a half to the 1870s. Think about that — a decade past the Civil War, a drink was created which has unabashedly survived to the era of TikTok. As with many classic drinks its precise origins are up for debate, but rendered unimportant as the end result is seen as a universal truth.

The Classic Manhattan

-2 ounces rye whiskey
-1 ounce sweet vermouth
-2 dashes Angostura bitters
Directions: Stir all ingredients well with ice. Strain and serve up, garnishing with a cocktail cherry.

The Manhattan was designed to use the spice of rye whiskey to stand up to the richness of the sweet vermouth, with a couple of dashes of aromatic, vibrant bitters coming through to the top of the drink. Rye whiskey isn’t your only choice though, and using bourbon in place of rye has become common as well. It’s up to your personal preference, and that’s where the fun begins in designing your own go-to Manhattan.

Even working from only this classic blueprint, you’re left with a number of variables: bourbon or rye, choice of vermouth, and ratio of whiskey to vermouth. By tinkering between those choices, you can dial up the strength of the drink or bring it down. Perhaps you’re in the mood for a sultry, rich sipper or something bold and spicy. The choice is yours to really hone in on any particular style you’d like. As you continue to dedicate yourself to such painstaking trial and error, consider a few other Manhattan variations below.

Manhattan Variations: The Classic ManhattanThe Classic Manhattan

Manhattan Variations to Try

The Perfect Manhattan

-2 ounces rye whiskey
-.5 ounce sweet vermouth
-.5 ounce dry vermouth
-2 dashes Angostura bitters

Directions: Stir all ingredients well with ice. Strain and serve up, garnishing with a lemon twist.

This drink isn’t really laying claim to being perfect, although some imbibers may agree with the point. Instead, when a cocktail has been dubbed “perfect,” it features an even split between sweet and dry vermouth. This simple half ounce change to the Manhattan makes for an entirely different drink, one that’s crisper, drier and more complex, with the shift in garnish reflecting and highlighting this new profile.

Manhattan Variations: The Perfect ManhattanThe Perfect Manhattan

The Black Manhattan

– 2 ounces rye whiskey
– 1 ounce Averna amaro
– dash of Angostura bitters
– dash of orange bitters

Directions: Stir all ingredients well with ice. Strain and serve up, garnishing with a cocktail cherry.

The Black Manhattan is a modern classic created by Todd Smith at Bourbon & Branch in San Francisco, circa 2005. If a standard Manhattan is sultry, the Black Manhattan is scandalously so. It’s an after dinner, last call, dimmed lights type of drink. The bracing bitter complexity of the amaro — Averna is bittersweet with zesty citrus, licorice and spice — takes the lead in the drink’s dance, as opposed to serving the role of background or bit player.

The Giovanna

-2 ounces Angel’s Envy Bourbon Finished in Port Barrels
-.5 ounce Averna
-.5 ounce Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur
-2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Directions: Stir all ingredients well with ice. Strain and serve up, garnishing with a lemon peel and a cherry.

Mike Bohm at the Angel’s Envy Distillery in Louisville serves this riff on the Black Manhattan, one of several cocktails offered to-go amid the pandemic. “This is super rich and sumptuous, I would savor it as an after dinner drink,” he says. The ginger tempers the bitter and licorice from Averna, offering a zingy, zesty note that livens up the drink and takes it in a new direction.

If there’s a constant amid all of the above Manhattan variations, it’s that small, subtle shifts can pay major dividends. Toggle through a few different ingredient substitutes or ratios a mere half ounce at a time and you’ll discover a vast spectrum of distinct drinks. You might even unearth your new personal standard or house specialty.

Ready to try your own Manhattan variations?

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