When critic David Ewen addressed George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in his 1944 book “Men of Popular Music,” he likened it to other essential products of the American imagination, including the skyscraper and the striptease. Better yet, he declared that Gershwin’s signature composition was “as native in its flavor as corn-on-the-cob, or a hot-dog, or a Manhattan cocktail.” High praise indeed – for Gershwin and for the Manhattan, a drink that deserves its reputation as a benchmark of American ingenuity. It’s a particularly apt metaphor: Just as “Rhapsody in Blue” combined the musical sensibilities of Storyville and Symphony Hall, the Manhattan mixes the everyman liquor, whiskey, with a refined wine aperitif, vermouth, for a cocktail comfortable in circles high and low.
Even the Manhattan’s competing creation myths straddle the demographics of Fifth Avenue and Broadway. The most repeated story is that Winston Churchill’s mother, Jennie, invented the Manhattan for a party at the social home of New York’s Democratic political establishment, the Manhattan Club. A plausible claim of paternity has also been made for “a man named Black, who kept a place 10 doors below Houston Street on Broadway.”
Though the Manhattan has often been thought of as a rye whiskey cocktail, drink historian David Wondrich notes that of the first four published recipes to specify a type of whiskey, two called for rye and two for bourbon. So use either in good conscience. As for the vermouth, both of my favorite sweet vermouths are made by Carpano. Its Punt-e-Mes is robust and earthy and stands up to about three parts whiskey; its Antica Formula is refined and elegant, and works best with two parts whiskey.
Bitters are a must, and you can’t go wrong with Angostura. But some old recipes (including the Manhattan Club’s) call for orange bitters. I like Manhattans with double dashes of each.
2 ounces rye whiskey or bourbon
3/4 ounce to 1 ounce sweet vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 dashes orange bitters
Luxardo brand marasca cherry cherry or orange peel, to garnish (optional)
Shake with ice and strain into a stemmed cocktail glass. Garnish with cherry or orange peel.