I was at the beach last month, doing what most people do on vacation: trying not to think too much about work. Of course, that meant that one of the most popular methods of escaping into relaxation mode — consuming cocktails — would not be particularly effective for me.
Because cocktails are, in fact, the focus of my job, I instead tried my best to avoid them. I was fairly successful, except for the day we were officially asked to leave the barrier island due to Hurricane Irene, during which more than a little bourbon was consumed.
Other than that, I didn’t think much about what I was drinking. I let other people stock the fridge with insipid, skunky Mexican beers and cheap, crisp, characterless white wines. I drank them all, free of judgment and snobbery. It was blissful. For a few days at least.
But then my geeky, critical impulses started to emerge. I wondered: What might be the optimal size of the lime slice one shoves into a Mexican beer bottle? I started comparing the Corona Light (unfavorably) to the Pacifico. I began to compose a little rant about how the jug of pinot grigio tasted like the lemonade being sold by the kids on the corner.
Call me a workaholic, but by Labor Day, all I could think about was getting back to the grind. So I mixed up one of my old favorites: a Manhattan. I hadn’t actually had a Manhattan all summer long, and this was just a basic recipe: 2 ounces of rye, 1 ounce of sweet vermouth, 2 dashes of Angostura bitters.
At first sip, I was thinking this recipe was close to the proportional golden ratio that Renaissance artists chased after. On the second sip, I thought: Even this ratio could be improved. By the third, I had one of those end-of-summer epiphanies: I really needed to recommit this fall to my quest of finding the perfect new Manhattan variation.
For me, what makes the Manhattan the greatest cocktail is that, like a great piece of music, it encourages endless riffs, improvisations and progressions. Over the years, I’ve chronicled many variations on the drink, some of which have become minor classics of their own. But I have yet to find its perfect incarnation.
Now, when I say “perfect” Manhattan, understand that I don’t mean the cocktail called the Perfect Manhattan, a variation that splits its vermouth equally between sweet and dry and with that minor alteration creates a surprisingly different drink. While the so-called Perfect Manhattan is a beautiful recipe, my Manhattan quest long ago reached a more advanced stage.
At first, cocktail aficionados played around with the vermouth. We replaced sweet/dry with bianco, or white, vermouth, and mixed it with equal parts bourbon in the Manhattan Bianco variation. We then got rid of the vermouth completely, using instead the Italian amaro Averna in the Black Manhattan.
From there, once vermouth became optional, the Manhattan started getting goofy with bitters (adding orange, Peychaud’s and even rhubarb bitters to the mix). We added liqueurs such as maraschino or Chartreuse or even Tuaca, in a variation called the Livorno (2 parts bourbon, 1 part Tuaca, 2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters). One variation I offered in a June 1 column was the Pennsylvania Dutch Manhattan, which included Root, a root tea liqueur that is similar to the alcoholic precursor of root beer.
One gimmick that came about in the “aughts” was naming Manhattan variations after other neighborhoods and boroughs. Thus, we got such renditions as the Greenpoint (rye, green Chartreuse, Punt e Mes) and the Red Hook (rye, Punt e Mes, maraschino liqueur). Both the Greenpoint and the Red Hook are, in my opinion, among the finest “new classic” cocktails created by the generation of bartenders who were responsible for the recent cocktail renaissance. But even with so much experimentation and innovation during the mid- to late 2000s, the Manhattan will never be exhausted of its possibilities.
I’m guessing the next great Manhattan will leave the whiskey behind altogether. One of my absolute favorite cocktails, for instance, is the Rum Manhattan mixed by Washington’s star-tender, Derek Brown.
When I came home from vacation, I tasted a variation called the Newark, from Jim Meehan’s soon-to-be-released “The PDT Cocktail Book” (Sterling Epicure). In lieu of whiskey, it called for apple brandy.
Now, most loyal readers of this column know I am a total sucker for anything with apple brandy, so the Newark already had one point in its favor. But adding the bold tastes of the Italian amaro Fernet Branca and maraschino liqueur gave this variation layers upon layers of complex flavor.
Was it the perfect riff on a Manhattan? Maybe, but probably not. But I can tell you one thing. If drinking a cocktail like that is work, I’d rather not take a vacation next year.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed Press, 2011). Follow him on Twitter @boozecolumnist.