The scientifically correct Manhattan

The New Manhattan Project

The Manhattan

A quick glance at the menu in your favourite bar will tell you that classic cocktails are back. The soi-disant “Martini Menu”, flogging such abominations as the Fluffy Duck and the Monkey’s Lunch, has mercifully been consigned to the dustbin of history, and we are back to the real thing, including the Old-Fashioned, the Martini, the Daiquiri and my personal favourite, the Manhattan.

The Manhattan is a go-to drink for whiskey[1] lovers. It’s a simple drink – just Angostura Bitters, whiskey, red vermouth and a cherry. It doesn’t rely on ingredients that might not be at hand (e.g. limes), nor on fussy preparation methods.

But in the same way that a simple dish like crème caramel reveals the skill of a chef, the simplicity of the Manhattan means that any flaws in the quality or proportion of ingredients is rapidly revealed.

In these troubled times it is important that we stand up for what is right, so I set out to answer the question: how to make the right Manhattan.

The simple answer is not to make one at all, but to simply order one at Bar SixtyFive in the Rockefeller Center. They serve the Platonic Ideal of a Manhattan, combining cask strength Wild Turkey, exotic Italian vermouths and those brandy cherries that are endemic to New York City. Properly, it is stirred, not shaken, and served on the rocks in a lowball glass. And the bar is in, well, Manhattan. With a stunning view of the Empire State Building.

So if you live in Manhattan your problem is now solved. For the rest of us there is…

The New Manhattan Project

The New Manhattan Project aims to use scientific methodology to determine the correct recipe for a Manhattan cocktail. A crack team of researchers has been assembled and have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of this important endeavour.

The elite research team: (l-r) Kevin, Anthony, Lynn, Nicholas, Cathy, Carl and Bryan.
The elite research team: (l-r) Kevin, Anthony, Lynn, Nicholas, Cathy, Carl and Bryan.

The first activity of this project was a seminar on Sunday afternoon, 4 August at On-the-Plus-Side secure facility and headquarters. The key objective of this seminar was to determine the correct basic ingredients of a Manhattan. Blind tastings were conducted to answer basic questions such as:

– Bourbon or Rye?

– Which vermouth is correct?

– Which type of cherry is best?

Report from the First Plenary

Vermouth

A modest selection of red vermouth.
A modest selection of red vermouth.

After an initial warm-up round of basic Manhattans, the researchers dove into the thorny issue of vermouth. Six red vermouths are currently available at the People’s Republic Patriotic Commissary LCBO. A preliminary round of research allowed us to down-select to four, with Bosco and Martini & Rossi voted off the island for being one-dimensional.

The four contenders were blind-tasted and compared, with researchers asked to rate them on colour, balance (sweet vs bitter), flavour as a solo beverage, and compatibility as part of a Manhattan.  For the most part the scores were close, but a clear winner and a clear loser were determined:

Lowest-rated: Dolin (France). The Tasters found it too sweet and lacking in complexity. Perhaps suitable as an aperitif over ice but not wanted on the Manhattan voyage.

Mid-pack: Cinzano Rosso and Lionello Original (Italy). Both were deemed suitable by most participants, and each received two first-place votes.

Highest-rated: Campano Antica Formula (Italy). A strong preference emerged for this vermouth. Many professional bartenders consider it the best, and a blind tasting confirmed this. A very complex drink that would make a lovely aperitif, its forté was as a mixer. Antica Formula had a dramatic, positive effect and was considered hands-down the best vermouth for a Manhattan.

Needless to say, it is only available at Paternalsim-is-Us the LCBO temporarily, so Ontario residents will want to lay in a supply to tide them over until (a) they re-stock it in another five years or so, or (b) hell freezes over and we get privately-run liquor stores.

Not tasted: Punt e Mes (Italy). Used in the Bar SixtyFive Manhattan. Unavailable in Ontario. Should have tasted it but ran out of glassware. 😉

Bourbon vs Rye

Whiskey
Proper whiskies all!

It is likely that the original Manhattan Cocktail was made with rye whiskey. Purists maintain that what was once must forever be, and are riled that bourbon has now become the default option. In order to resolve this debate and bring peace to the galaxy, the two drinks were evaluated side-by-side.

The constituent whiskies were Jim Beam Black Label, representing the bourbon team, and Crown Royal Northern Harvest Rye. These are whiskies of good quality – a step above bar whiskey, but not at the top level. (I had Michter’s Small Batch Bourbon and Knob Creek Rye on hand but these are reserved for drinking neat).

This round of tests did not yield a clear winner. The team was split 4-3 in favour of bourbon, but none of the members were prepared to accept this as definitive. Then, as often happens in scientific endeavours, serendipity stepped in. One unnamed member,[2] possibly a bit in his cups already, dumped his two half-finished drinks together. He declared the resulting mash-up the winner, and the panel tentatively agreed. A confirmatory batch of cocktails would be needed, but professional decorum was starting to slide a bit so I called a time out on further cocktails until we had completed the next task.

CherriesCocktail cherries

The panel agreed that a cherry was an essential part of the drink, and that a stem was desirable but not essential. Six types of cherry were evaluated:

  • Amarena Fabbri Wild Cherries in Syrup (Italy)
  • Luxardo Maraschino Cherries (Italy) – the original maraschino cherry
  • Tillen Farms Merry Maraschino Cherries (USA)
  • Bog standard, bizarrely red cocktail cherries, as seen on a Dairy Queen sundae (Probably grown at Chernobyl)
  • Home-made New York-style brandied cherries, made with bottled sour cherries and brandy
  • Home-made fresh cherries in brandy

The above list shows the candidates in rank order from top to bottom. The top two were preferred by a wide margin, with the Amaretto cherries slightly nudging past Luxardo. Merry Maraschino and the industrial cherries were in the middle, while both home-made versions fell far behind. The bottled cherries were deemed unappealingly mushy, and the fresh cherries too boozy. In fairness the latter may have suffered from being too fresh – usually these cherries need about six months to moulder before they are ready. Further research may be needed.

The Correct Manhattan

The scientifically correct Manhattan
The scientifically correct Manhattan

A final batch of cocktails was produced in accordance with the initial findings, allowing participants to review their work in detail. The team pointed out that findings were not valid unless replicated, so a second batch was produced. By this point they were not making much sense, but they concurred that through diligent work we had scientifically determined the recipe for the Correct Manhattan.

The research team
Who says science is boring?

Recipe

In a lowball glass, combine:

Two dashes Angostura Bitters

¾ ounces bourbon

¾ ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce red vermouth, preferably Carpano Antica Formula

Stir to mix. Add three ice cubes. Skewer a cocktail cherry, either Amarena Fabbri or Luxardo, and add as a garnish. Repeat as necessary.

The team then relaxed. Concluding that they might by then be tired of Manhattans I offered something completely different – a Manhattan Negro, in which Amaro Lucano replaces the vermouth. According to  the Gibberish-English mode of Google Translate it seems that these were well-received.

Afterword

For its next task the research team will set its sights on gin. Amid the current wild proliferation of gin brands and styles it is necessary to determine the best gin or gins for the home bartender. A report will be published in due course. Stay tuned!

The Ethics Committee has determined that this activity met established guidelines. Participants were free to control their own intake. Alternative (non-alcoholic) beverages were available. Only mild bullying was permitted. No animals were harmed in pursuit of this research project.

[1] Whiskey in this case because it is made with Bourbon or Rye. The no-E (Scotch) whisky version is a Rob Roy. An oddity at best.

[2] It was Kevin. 😊

3 thoughts on “The New Manhattan Project”

  1. I like the new Manhattan Project a lot more than the old. I didn’t like the old one in the first place, so this is already a massive upgrade for me. I hope that all bars will start to serve the new Manhattan Project instead of the old one.

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