The Classic Drink in History: The Manhattan


What’s the drink order perfect for reviewing a bar? You guessed it: the legendary Manhattan.

For such a simple drink with only three ingredients—whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters—it actually takes serious skill to ace one.

If you stir it too much, it’s watery. If you don’t stir it enough, it’s too warm. If there’s too much vermouth, it’s sticky sweet. And because it is so simple, quality ingredients are key. Ever tasted a Manhattan that’s been made with inferior whiskey or vermouth? Then you know of what we speak.

“Indeed, the mark of a bartender who is truly worth his or her salt lies solidly in his or her interpretation of the Manhattan,” cocktail historian Gaz Regan wrote in an article for the SF Gate.

So, who was the genius that mixed up the first one? As with many cocktails, the origins are a watery abyss of theories. And this one even includes the world’s most famous prime minister in the womb!

What we do know for sure is this stunning stalwart was invented sometime in the late 1800s. In fact, one of the earliest records of a Manhattan version was in the 1891 book, The Flowing Bowl- What and When to Drink: Full Instructions How to Prepare, Mix and Serve Beverages, by William Schmidt, called for gum, bitters, absinthe, whiskey, and vermouth.

And this precedes other vermouth cocktails, such as the Rob Roy, Martini, and the Martinez. Therefore, the Manhattan is the godfather or grand poobah (as well it should be) of drinks with vermouth.

The juiciest version of the drink’s origin took place at the Manhattan Club in New York. And yes, the club still lays claim to it today. Allegedly, in 1874, Dr. Iain Marshall created it for a party Lady Randolph Churchill (Winston Churchill’s mom) was throwing to celebrate Samuel J. Tilden’s victory in New York’s gubernatorial election.

However, this theory has major eyebrow-raising flaws. According to David Wondrich in his book Imbibe!, the party was thrown at the same time she was in England giving birth to the future political legend.

Another account, which is the one most cocktail historians agree on, was by bartender William F. Mulhall. Mulhall was behind the stick for decades at New York’s historic Hoffman House (It opened in 1679, and you can still get a stiff drink there today!). In a story penned by the longtime bartender in the 1932 Valentine’s Manual of Old New York book, he wrote: “The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black, who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the 1860s—probably the most famous drink in the world in its time.”

Whoever it was that invented the world’s most expertly made cocktail, we can all raise a glass in their honor. And although its historical roots are quintessentially anchored in New York, the Manhattan appears on nearly every craft cocktail bar menu in the world—in some form or another.

To make a traditional Manhattan, crank up Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” classic and stir up this recipe:

Manhattan

Manhattan

Manhattan

Ingredients:

  • 2 oz. Bourbon
  • ¾ oz. Sweet Vermouth
  • 3 dashes Angostura Bitters

Preparation: Fill mixing glass with ingredients, add ice, and stir gently for 10-15 seconds, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry.

 





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