The Manhattan Cocktail and Island Discovery

Your cocktail calendar entry for: September
11
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September 11, 1609 was the day Henry Hudson discovered Manhattan Island and the indigenous people living in the area.  He wasn’t the first European to set eyes upon it, but he was the first to map it.  That laid the foundation for Dutch colonization of the area and seems to get all the credit.  After all, he got the Hudson River named after him and became the namesake of the Hudson Bay Company.  The appropriate Drink of the Day is the Manhattan, one of the five cocktails named after each of New York’s boroughs.

Manhattan’s History

The island now called Manhattan was long inhabited by the Lenape and Wappinger Indians.  The first European to visit the area was actually Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano.  In the end he got a bridge named after him, but that seems like a participation trophy because he didn’t do much more when he was around than name New York Harbor New Angoulême.

Henry Hudson was an Englishman working for the Dutch East India Company, which is distinct from the East India Company run out of England we previously wrote about with the East India Cocktail.  He mapped the area and sailed up the Hudson River as far as what is now known as Albany.  But his whole ill-fated reason for being there was to find a rumored northern passage to the Pacific Ocean.  He was off by only a few thousand miles.

Come 1624, colonists from the Dutch Republic set up a fur trading post on nearby Governors Island.  In 1625 they began construction of Fort Amsterdam on what is now Lower Manhattan, naming it New Amsterdam.  This 1625 establishment of Fort Amsterdam is generally recognized as the birth of New York City.  According to a letter by Pieter Schagen, in 1626 Dutch colonists acquired Manhattan from the native people in exchange for goods worth about 60 guilders.  In 1864 New York historian John Brodhead calculated that was worth $24 at the time.  Sounds like a raw deal, but at the time the natives had plenty of land and didn’t seem to mind getting rid of a swampy area.

Manhattan Cocktail Origin

So now to the Manhattan cocktail.  As usual, the drinkers of the era didn’t exactly document cocktail history, and classic cocktail origin stories are often dubious at best.  Being a truly iconic cocktail of the age, the resultant confusion surrounds the Manhattan more than most and there are a number of conflicting tales.

The long defunct Manhattan Club in New York was long credited as its birthplace through invention by an Iain Marshall for a banquet hosted by Lady Randolph Churchill.  But other historic evidence suggests Lady Churchill was actually nowhere near New York on the supposed date and was instead busy getting ready to give birth to her better known son and consummate drinker, Winston Churchill.  So this theory as it stands is unlikely.

Another theory involves a character named Black who ran a bar on Broadway near Houston Street sometime in the 1860s, and yet another claims the drink was invented in New Orleans.  The details and historic research are far too involved to recite here, but the cocktail historian Philip Greene devotes several chapters to the theories and history in his aptly named book, The Manhattan.

The Manhattan Cocktail Recipe

So let’s get to the drink itself.  The fundamental makeup of a Manhattan – American whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters – has been in place since the 19th century.  The details, of course, have evolved either by need or tastes of the times.

As the predominant whiskey of the era, Rye whiskey was the original whiskey of choice, but during Prohibition it was commonly replaced with Canadian whiskey that had been smuggled south by bootleggers.  After Prohibition, Rye was eclipsed by Bourbon, which became the more common base spirit.  Proportions were flexible too.  Harry Craddock, in The Savoy Cocktail Book, describes recipes using equal measures of whiskey and vermouth, and recipes across a number of references often add small amounts of things like absinthe or Curacao.

But today for our purposes we’ll rely on what is typically accepted as the classic Manhattan, comprising rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and Angostura bitters.  Your better bartenders will mix it in a 2:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth, but there are two well accepted variations:  the Perfect Manhattan and the Dry Manhattan.

The “perfect” version replaces half of the sweet vermouth with dry vermouth, and the “dry” version dispenses entirely with the sweet vermouth and relies solely on dry vermouth.  Neither of these are commonly ordered, but the Dry Manhattan even less so.  Our Editorial Board finds the Dry Manhattan a bit barren, but the Perfect Manhattan provides a good middle ground if the classic version strikes you as a bit sweet.

There are a lot of Manhattan variations.  If you like the sweet and dry vermouth combination with gin it’s a Suffragette cocktail.  Another good, but lesser known variation is the Jive Turkey cocktail or Trainspotter cocktail.

Manhattan cocktail

Manhattan

A consummate American cocktail, the Manhattan is a true classic and loved everywhere. While we show this recipe for a version served up, in a cocktail glass, feel free to explore having it on the rocks. And you are also welcome to garnish it with a lemon or orange twist if you are so inclined. Proportions can be adjusted, but note that it will become quite sweet if a greater proportion of sweet vermouth is used.
5 from 2 votes

Equipment

  • Mixing glass
  • Nick and Nora or coupe glass

Ingredients
  

Instructions
 

  • Add rye whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters to mixing glass.
  • Add ice and stir to chill.
  • Strain into pre-chilled cocktail glass.
  • Garnish with cherry.
  • Drink.
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