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The Manhattan Variety Show

The Manhattan Variety Show


The most sophisticated cocktail is also the most versatile.

For a New York transplant, there's almost nothing more satisfying than finding yourself on a winter's night in a snug, softly lit bar nursing the city's signature cocktail. What is it about the Manhattan that is so easily sophisticated, and yet so deeply comforting? Whiskey, vermouth, a few drops of bitters -- that's all! -- and from there it's a slow-burn to cocktail nirvana. And that's where the fun begins, because the Manhattan, like the city it's named for, is endlessly adaptable.

I encountered a version at Brooklyn's Clover Club in which a light wash of maraschino and absinthe replaced the vermouth; at Whitehall, an English gin joint in New York's West Village, they Anglicize the Manhattan by switching out whiskey for sloe gin; and the folks at Brugal rum, out of the Dominican Republic, came up with a novel version mixing two parts of their white rum, Brugal Extra Dry, with one part Antica Formula, a warm red vermouth, and stirring it with a dash of orange bitters. Orange gets amplified further in a version at New York's Employees Only, with Grand Marnier added to a base of rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, and bitters.

You might want to ease back on the lavish quantity of vermouth, but as with all these options, playing with the quantities is all part of the fun. But watch out for self-styled "Sake Ninja" Chris Johnson -- sake sommelier at Cherry in New York -- who adds yet another twist to the line-up.

Johnson found a sake with a flavor bold enough to mimic a classic Manhattan and came up with several options. His first, the Edo, hews quite closely to the script, substituting an aged sake, Tenranzan Koten 1997, for bourbon, and stirring it with an ounce of Antica Formula and two dashes of Angostura bitters. The result is rich, smoky, and woody. For his second act, Johnson went for something more eclectic involving cream sherry and pickled ginger yuzu bitters. He calls it the Harajuku Manhattan, and although it's unlikely you can make the same drink at home, cocktails, like cooking, thrive on experimentation.

No matter which of these variations grabs your fancy, make sure to stir with plenty of ice -- the colder the drink, the better the flavor. That's one rule on which discussion is moot.

A Cocktail Classic, Twisted

These new Manhattans should be stirred in a jug with plenty of ice before being poured into a chilled martini glass. Not all of them require a cherry, but really, why would you skimp?

Employees Only Manhattan
1 1/2 oz. rye whiskey
1 3/4 oz. sweet vermouth
1/2 oz. Grand Marnier
3 dashes Angostura bitters
Lemon twist for garnish

Black Manhattan
2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. Averna
1 dash Angostura bitters
Cherry for garnish

Autumn in Manhattan
2 oz. Brugal Extra Dry
1 oz. Antica Formula
1 dash orange bitters

The Harajuku Manhattan
3 oz. Three Dots sake
1/2 oz. cream sherry
1/4 oz. sweet vermouth
3 dashes pickled ginger yuzu bitters
Orange peel for garnish

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