Whoever it was that conjured up the Manhattan, the classic potion that calls for skillfully integrating American whiskey—straight rye was probably the spirit of choice in the 19th century, though bourbon is quite acceptable today—with sweet vermouth and aromatic bitters, came up with a drink that is truly glorious.
One thing we’re pretty sure of is that the drink had reared its beautiful head by the 1880s, and we also know that it was one of the very first cocktails that called for vermouth as a modifier. Dear, sweet vermouth. The Manhattan predates other vermouth greats like the Martini, the Martinez, the Rob Roy and the Bobby Burns. It is the king of vermouth drinks. The ruler of the realm. My God, I do love my Manhattans.
There’s a chance that the Manhattan was invented at the Manhattan Club in New York, and the club’s official history makes that claim. According to popular legend, the recipe was created there for a party thrown in 1874 by Jennie Jerome (AKA Lady Randolph Churchill), Winston Churchill’s mother. But no matter what anyone tells you—and this story is often seen in print (hell, I’ve written it myself)—don’t believe it. As Liquor.com advisor David Wondrich pointed out in his book Imbibe!, Lady Randolph was in England about to give birth to little Winnie at the time she was supposed to be partying in the Big Apple.
The best lead we have on the true birth of the drink is from a story written by William F. Mulhall, a bartender who plied his trade at New York’s famed Hoffman House for more than 30 years, starting in the early 1880s. “The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black, who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the [eighteen-] sixties—probably the most famous drink in the world in its time,” Mulhall wrote.
Even though Mulhall’s account comes decades after the drink appeared on the scene, we do know that the man was a bona fide bartender. And if you can’t trust a bartender, I ask you, who the heck can you trust?
Gaz Regan’s Favorite Manhattan
Contributed by Gary Regan
- 3 oz Evan Williams Black Label Bourbon*
- 1.5 oz Noilly Prat Rouge Vermouth**
- 6 dashes Angostura Bitters***
- Glass: Old fashioned
- Add all the ingredients to a large old fashioned glass filled with ice and stir.
*Unless someone sends me some other kind of bourbon or straight rye—if it’s free, I’ll drink it. If I have to buy it, I buy Evan Williams Black Label.
**Unless someone sends me some other kind of sweet vermouth—if it’s free, I’ll drink it. If I have to buy it, I buy Noilly Prat.
***No substitutions. And it’s been a long time since they sent me any freebies...
Gary Regan is the author of numerous books about spirits and cocktails, including The Joy of Mixology and The Bartender’s Gin Compendium. He is also co-host of ArdentSpirits.com and a Liquor.com advisor .