As I satisfied a fall craving by mixing myself an assortment of fortifying Manhattans (yes, an assortment; in my house, that’s called “research”), I concluded that it may be time for Canada to relinquish its claim on the classic cocktail. Notwithstanding the sundry variations offered by my drinks-book collection that call for Canadian whisky, the Manhattan tastes best with rye, New York’s whisky of choice during the late 19th century and the brown spirit that inspired the original cocktail.
That may sound like a contradiction, but it’s not. Rye is not a major ingredient in most Canadian whiskies. Our fine spirit tends to be based on corn even though it’s colloquially referred to as rye.
Corn is smoother and sweeter, echoing red Italian vermouth, the drink’s other main ingredient. Rye, on the other hand, delivers a jolt of spice and a bolder whisky flavour, underpinning the sweet, aromatized wine with a musky counterpoint. A rye-based Manhattan is New York hustle. The Canadian variant is Toronto the Good.
Not that any whisky can botch the Manhattan. During much of the past century, many bartenders on both sides of the border followed the post-Prohibition model whenever a wise patron called for this velvet hammer of cocktails. Rye production had virtually dried up by the 1930s, opening a flank for Canadian whisky as well as corn-based Kentucky bourbon. In fact, those spirits did more for the drink’s ascent than rye. I’ve even used delicate Irish whisky after the last of my bourbon stash was put out for recycling. But rye clearly has the edge. It’s the perfect foundation for the perfect autumn-night bracer.
Thanks to rye’s resurgence, we’re seeing a revival of the classic Manhattan. Wide distribution of such U.S. brands as Rittenhouse, Sazerac, Bulleit and Old Overholt, some now available in parts of Canada, have inspired more barkeeps to revisit the past. And if you don’t mind using a $50 spirit in a mixed drink, the excellent Wiser’s Legacy, one of the few Canadian whiskies based mainly on rye (along with robust barley), would be my domestic choice.
“A traditionalist wouldn’t use Canadian Club for a Manhattan,” says Bill Sweete, a partner at Sidecar Bar & Grill in Toronto. Mr. Sweete also helps to run a private club upstairs called the Toronto Temperance Society, which specializes in pre-Prohibition cocktails. He currently mixes his Manhattan with Sazerac rye and Carpano Antica Formula, a hard-to-find Italian vermouth.
As with most classics, the Manhattan’s origins are as hazy as the drinker’s memory after one too many. Some believe it was created at New York’s Manhattan Club in 1874 in honour of newly elected governor (and future presidential candidate) Samuel Tilden. A less-popular tale attributes it to a man simply remembered as Black, who ran a saloon on Broadway.
Credit aside, Mr. Sweete suspects it evolved from the sazerac cocktail (not to be confused with the rye brand), made with rye, sugar syrup, absinthe and bitters. Meanwhile, the Toronto Temperance Society’s bartender, Oliver Stern, believes it probably descended from the Martinez, which some historians also believe was the sweet precursor to the dry martini. The Martinez combines maraschino liqueur, bitters, gin and red vermouth. The now-signature garnish was certainly added later, because maraschino cherries were mostly unknown in the United States until about 1900.
Like the martini, that other great pillar of the classic repertoire, the Manhattan spawned its own share of variants. The dry version, favoured by Frank Sinatra, employs white vermouth, often called French vermouth in recipes, while the “perfect” Manhattan calls for half an ounce of white vermouth and half an ounce of red vermouth to two ounces whisky, yielding a lighter colour and more robust whisky flavour. I love the perfect as much as the original. The Rob Roy, created in the 1890s, is one part scotch to one part sweet vermouth and a dash of bitters.
Colin Turner, the bar manager at CinCin Ristorante + Bar in Vancouver, began making the “reverse Manhattan” for a client seeking something sweeter to sip in the company of a “Manhattan-junkie” friend. The patron “didn’t like bourbon or hard alcohol but liked liqueurs,” Mr. Turner says. For a reverse, mix two or three parts sweet vermouth to one part whisky.
Then there’s the Jumbo, equal parts rye, dry vermouth and sweet vermouth. David Wondrich, an American cocktail historian, speculated in Esquire magazine that it may have been named after P.T. Barnum’s famous elephant, which gave rise to the word jumbo as a synonym for huge. The pachyderm was reputed to regularly down a quart of whisky without visible effect. He died in 1885 after getting hit by a train in St. Thomas, Ont. – “sober, they say,” Mr. Wondrich added.
I suppose that means it could be fitting to make a Jumbo with Canadian whisky.
Regardless of the vermouth you choose (Martini or Cinzano red are both good), here’s the drink: two parts rye to one part red vermouth and a dash or two of Angostura bitters; stir in a cocktail shaker with ice and strain into a V-shaped martini glass; garnish with a maraschino cherry (preferably the kind with stem attached). No juice, no special equipment, just a simple preparation and a shimmering glow of amber, copper and crimson. Some people prefer the drink over ice in a tumbler, but not me; that’s like putting ski racks on a Ferrari.