H.L. Mencken famously called the martini "the only American invention as perfect as the sonnet." The sonnet, as anyone who took freshman English may remember, is a poem with a specific meter, a structure of exactly 14 lines and a strict rhyme scheme. This being the age of free verse, no one writes sonnets anymore. Which is just as well, since almost no one reads poetry anymore.
I've been tasting a lot of silly drinks lately, and I believe we have entered the age of free verse in cocktails. Not long ago, for example, I attended an event that featured 10 of the best bartenders in the Washington area, all trying to out-mix one another. Here are some of the ingredients used in that evening's cocktails: rose hips, yuzu juice, truffle oil, tarragon soda, homemade celery bitters, Sichuan pepper, tonka bean syrup and cherrywood-smoked white pepper meringue. Sometimes I think we're all losing our minds; Mencken would not be amused.
Creativity is to be admired, and it's certainly exciting to fancy oneself a "bar chef." Maybe I'm just a classicist at heart, but a lot of contemporary cocktails bring to mind Robert Frost's assertion that writing free-verse poetry is like playing tennis without a net. Or, in the words of one wise friend, "Dude, every once in a while can I just get something to drink?"
The other day, that same friend asked me to tell him honestly -- as a normal human being -- what my favorite cocktail is. I thought about a drink with ingredients that don't require a visit to an expensive gourmet shop, an act of Congress to import, or the hiring of a private detective to track down.
That's easy, I said. No contest. The Manhattan.
I am far from alone in that opinion. "The Manhattan, by many accounts, constitutes proof that there's a benevolent force working for us in the universe," A.J. Rathbun writes in his cocktail compendium, "Good Spirits" (Harvard Common Press, 2007).
Duggan McDonnell of Cantina Bebidas in San Francisco was moved to near-poetry in an e-mail: "The Manhattan is the cocktail that every grown man comes of age upon; it is the drink that brings his drinking palate, his social awareness, his willingness to spend and entertain into maturity."
And Todd Thrasher of PX, Restaurant Eve and the Majestic says that "in every bar or restaurant in the world, every bartender has a variation of the Manhattan."
With apologies to Mencken, the Manhattan is more complex than the martini and more flavorful. Like a strong poetic structure, the Manhattan's recipe is more of a starting point than a rote list of ingredients. It is both universal and highly personal. The Manhattan encourages modifications, riffs, virtuoso performances.
And it is deceptively simple. In its most basic form, the Manhattan is two parts whiskey, one part vermouth, a few dashes of bitters and a garnish. But that is simply an outline. As any art-school student is told, you have to know the rules before you know how to break them.
· First, will you use bourbon whiskey, or rye? The original 19th-century Manhattan was meant for rye, which is brasher and spicier, but smoother, sweeter bourbon is what I reach for more often. When I use bourbon, I prefer Russell's Reserve or Woodford Reserve. With rye, I generally go for standards such as Wild Turkey 101, Michter's or Old Overholt.
· What vermouth will you use? The basic choice is sweet vermouth, such as Martini & Rossi. But I've tasted excellent versions that use Cynar, Punt e Mes or other Italian amari. Versions such as the Perfect Manhattan call for a little dry vermouth.