The Tastes of Texas: The Cocktail Manifesto -- Part I, the Manhattan

With care, the right ingredients, and a little bit of effort, anyone can make a good drink.

To be honest, it was my fault. I did it to myself; I should have known better.

I walked to the bar across the parking lot from my hotel, somewhere north of Dallas. I was going to order a drink and a simple dinner. I walked in and sat down. The bartender, a modestly cute blond in her early 20s, asked me what I wanted. I asked for a menu and a Manhattan.

She gave me a menu and then walked over to someone else who was working there. I am not a lip reader, but I could very clearly determine that she asked her coworker the following question.

"What's in a Manhattan?"

After that, she proceeded to search the bar as if on a scavenger hunt. I tried to look away, focusing on the menu. This couldn't be happening. Not in America.

My drink arrived a few minutes later. It was four ounces of liquid failure. It came with a cherry.

This sort of thing does not have to happen to you. You can free yourself from the horrible oppression of poorly-trained bartenders by taking matters into your own hands. I will show you how.

One of the easiest ways to improve the quality of your life is to learn how to make a decent drink. Mixing cocktails is simple, fun, and does not require a bunch of fancy ingredients or equipment. Sure, you will need a cocktail shaker and some supplies, but only a few well chosen mixing components -- many of which you probably own -- will take you a long way. It is not a hard thing to learn how to do. I have no formal training, and learned everything I know from the Internet and experimentation.

And a book. Boy did I learn from a book. The key event that brought me into the world of cocktails was discovering the book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David Embury. This book was originally published in 1948, and new editions are still available. Embury's book shouts the gospel of cocktails. It mixes wit with clear explanations about what makes the drinks tick. Many books and websites present cocktail recipes, but the difference between using a recipe book and using Embury's work is akin to the difference between a paint-by-numbers kit and learning to paint. Also, Embury's accounts of the sort of booze available during prohibition, and his chapter titled "The Use and Abuse of Liquor" make this book well worth reading, even if you never intend to make a drink.

My goal for this series is to arm and motivate you to dive into the world of bitters and vermouth. You can do it. The first steps are easy.

This post starts from the very beginning, focusing on some basics, and presenting a single recipe for the Manhattan. More recipes will follow in the rest of this short series, so don't worry if you don't like Manhattans.

Equipment

For only a little money, you can set yourself up with the handful of tools you need to mix drinks. Here is a starting list.

A shaker.

A few cocktail glasses (commonly referred to as martini glasses, but they are for more than just martinis). In truth, you could get by without them, but why live life as a savage? You can find very inexpensive cocktail glasses if you look for them.

Something to measure proportions with (a jigger is best, but the metal cap from a cobbler-style shaker and a good set of eyes will do just fine).

Something to stir with (a bar spoon works, but I generally just use a butter knife).

Ice (lots and lots of ice).

With this set, you should next purchase the supplies to mix one or two cocktails. Perhaps you just start with a single cocktail, and then slowly build out your supplies from there. If you are going to start with your first cocktail, one I recommend for whiskey drinkers is the Manhattan (which I describe below). For gin fans, I recommend the gimlet, or the martini (both of which will be covered later in this series). If you want to start from rum, you can't go wrong with a daiquiri (covered in a future post). And if you like vodka, I recommend that you buy a bottle of gin(*). Booze is supposed to taste like something.

(*You can adapt pretty much any gin recipe to vodka. Just make sure it is already in your Five-Year Plan.)

Some general notes on recipes

In nearly all of the recipes that I will give in this series, I will not provide exact quantities for each ingredient, but rather will focus on proportions. I find this makes things easier to remember. A Manhattan is anything from a 2:1 to a 4:1 ratio of whiskey to sweet vermouth depending on your taste. I find it easier to remember ratios than actual liquid quantities.

So I will generally describe recipes in terms of "parts" or ratios. One part is just one arbitrary unit of volume. It is up to you how big it is, and you can adjust the volume of what you consider a part depending on your needs. If recipes listed in parts are good enough for bakers and rubber compounders, they will certainly meet our needs here.

I typically use a little less than 20 mL for each part. So four parts, the quantity that I usually use for the booze in a drink, is about the same as 75 mL if you mix the drinks the way I like to. Doing a little math, this means that you will get roughly ten strong drinks out of a single 750 mL bottle of liquor (the most common size). I try to keep the bottles of booze that I buy for mixing drinks at a cost of around $25 or less per 750 mL bottle for this reason. I figure that I am spending between $2-3 dollars per drink when I mix them at home, depending on what is all involved.

You may find that a little aggressive in terms of quantities, but it is just how I roll. If you want to cut back on the quantities, just reduce the volume of a part in your system. That is the strength of using this approach in presenting the recipes; everyone gets to make up their own mind about drink size, and does not have to do any calculations to adjust the size of their batch.

A "dash" is a small quantity that is up to you. When it is a dash of bitters, it is a drop that the bitters bottle is designed to give you when you shake it once. When it is a dash of grenadine, you can just pour a little bit of grenadine into the bottle cap, and then pour that into your drink.


The Manhattan

With that out of the way, let's start mixing a drink. The Manhattan is as good a place to start as any.

The basic recipe is this, but I will describe some details below.

4 parts Bourbon or rye whiskey (I prefer rye, but you should experiment)

1 to 2 parts sweet vermouth (I prefer 2 parts, but you should experiment)

2 dashes Angostura bitters (Try up to 4 dashes one time, to see if you like it)

1 maraschino cherry

The Manhattan is my favorite cocktail. It tastes great, with a nice balance of whiskey, bitters, and the aromatic flavors of the sweet vermouth. And it just looks cool -- perfectly transparent with a red-brownish liquid in a cocktail glass. Drinking a Manhattan on the rocks never made much sense to me. As the ice melts, it waters down your drink. And it just doesn't look right. If you feel too effeminate sitting with a drink served up in a cocktail glass, that says much more about you than it does about the drink. Roger Sterling has no problem drinking out of a glass like this, and neither should you.

In the recipe above, I provide ranges for several of the proportions. I do this because I encourage you to experiment to determine how you best like your Manhattan. For my taste, I go with a two to one ratio of whiskey to vermouth, and three or four dashes of the bitters.

The whiskey you choose is very important. There is no point in selecting something expensive, as you are going to mix it with things that will alter the flavor. Additionally, you will find when making cocktails that you go through liquor rather quickly, particularly if you mix them the way that I do. But you also don't want to use something terrible, as whiskey is still the major component of this drink. I generally aim to use something in the $20 / 750 mL bottle price range for mixing cocktails. If you use bourbon, one of the major brands like Makers Mark or Buffalo Trace will do. For rye, I go back and forth between Rittenhouse and Bulleit.

You can make a Manhattan with either bourbon or rye whiskey. My preference is to use rye, because I feel that its sharp flavor cuts through the cocktail, creating a better experience. But this is just my preference. You might find that you prefer bourbon. The only way to find out is to experiment. One way to do this is make two cocktails at once, one using bourbon, and the other using rye. You will figure out your own preference rather quickly this way.

Sweet vermouth is the second main ingredient on the list. A bottle of sweet vermouth only costs a few dollars, and will keep in your refrigerator for a long time. Sweet vermouth is a fortified wine that has been infused with various dry ingredients and to which sugar has been added. It red in color.

Angostura bitters are an alcohol/water mixture that have been infused with a mix of ingredients. There are many varieties of bitters. Bitters generally are strong in flavor, and are capable of altering the flavor of a cocktail with only a few drops of liquid. They typically come in small bottles, and have caps designed to only let out a single drop at a time. Bitters are to a cocktail like pepper is to a dish. A small bottle of bitters only costs a few dollars, last a very long time, and can be stored at room temperature. Do not decide to be cheap and skip buying bitters, figuring you can make a Manhattan with just whiskey and vermouth. It won't produce the same results.

To make the Manhattan, first measure out the whiskey and sweet vermouth, and pour each into a cocktail shaker. Then add several drops of the bitters into the shaker. Next add the ice. I prefer to add the ice at this point, rather than adding it first, as it better facilitates mixing the bitters in with the rest of the liquid.

With the ice and liquid in your shaker, the next step is to stir the drink until it is very cold. This should take less than 30 seconds, but it will depend on the quantity of ice used. I use a lot of ice, as I want to cool things off as quickly as possible without melting much of the ice. Melting ice dilutes the drink. But don't worry too much about this, as you will quickly develop a feel for how much ice to use.

I never shake a Manhattan, but always stir. I want the Manhattan to be as transparent as possible when I strain it into a glass. Shaking can make the drink cloudy, and can introduce undesirable ice shavings into the drink. By the same logic, I typically stir martinis.

With the Manhattan sufficiently cold, I strain it into a cocktail glass (which removes the ice), and then drop a maraschino cherry into the glass with the drink.

If I am feeling fancy, I will pre-chill the cocktail glass before I pour in the drink. This is easy to do. When you start mixing the drink fill the cocktail glass with ice and water. When you are ready to strain out your drink, pour the ice water out of the cocktail glass.

Some people prefer to drink their Manhattans on the rocks, rather than up in a cocktail glass. If you wish to do this, it is fine, but just remember that you are going to slowly dilute the drink with melting ice, which will dilute the overall experience.

With the supplies you purchased to make a Manhattan, you can also make an Old Fashioned. You won't use the vermouth, but will instead use sugar, or simple sugar syrup. I recommend using the sugar syrup, as it saves some time and trouble spent muddling. We will get to the syrup next week, but it isn't hard to figure out on your own. An Old Fashioned is typically served on the rocks.

Summary, and what is coming next time

This article gave some basic starting ideas and encouragement to those who want to make cocktails at home. It is easy, and you should start doing it. If not, you are really missing out.

But these were only the first baby steps. Next time, we will dive deeper into cocktail making, focusing on sour cocktails, such as the Gimlet.

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