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A classic Manhattan tolerates only a tad of tweaking

Among the many martini variations, a Manhattan is often the best choice


'What's your favourite martini?" a high-school friend asked recently at a class reunion after I let slip that I drink for a living. The question was puzzling at first. Is there more than one, I wondered. Naive me. There are, of course, almost as many martini mutations today as people who drink them.

Gin or vodka? Vermouth or Lillet? Perhaps a whisky "rinse" instead? Olives or a twist? Extra brine? How about orange bitters for historical authenticity? Most pressing: What's the "correct" proportion of spirit to vermouth? Three, five, 15 to one? Iconic it may be, but the martini sometimes seems like not so much a cocktail as grounds for a bar brawl.

Then there's the Manhattan, bastion of don't-screw-with-it balance. The one true recipe: two parts rye or bourbon to one part red vermouth to two dashes Angostura bitters. That's 2-1-2, Manhattan's area code, which I suspect may not be a coincidence. It yields a tonic of whisky-forward wonder that's bracing yet velvety, a potable analog to brisk but cozy autumn nights.

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One can tinker at the margins, of course. Go ahead and substitute a maraschino cherry for the purist's citrus twist if you strongly crave an appetizer of calcium chloride and red food dye. Add ice, assuming you drink so sluggishly as to permit excessive heat intrusion. Matt Jones, whisky ambassador for Beam Suntory, the spirits giant that just launched Canadian Club Chairman's Select 100% Rye, a fine base for a Manhattan, says he prefers to cut the sweet vermouth from 33 to 25 per cent of the mix when using softer, wheat-heavy bourbons, such as Maker's Mark. A more aggressive, spicy rye, on the other hand, might call for more vermouth to soften the kick. Every mixed drink demands familiarity with base ingredients. "It's so easy to throw a cocktail off balance," he says, sagely.

But the standard formula tolerates only so much tweaking. Meddle aggressively with the tried-and-true 2-1-2 and – sorry, ye well-intentioned, handlebar-mustached hipster bartenders – it no longer will consent to be called a Manhattan. Swap out rye for Scotch and you've made a Rob Roy. Reduce the Italian vermouth by half to make room for an equal measure of dry French stuff and the drink becomes a Perfect Manhattan. Replace Angostura with, say, a few drops of bitter aperitif liqueur such as Amer Picon and you get a Monahan Special. And so on.

There is, most tellingly, no vodka Manhattan, no "dirty" Manhattan, no apple-hattan, choco-hattan or sake-hattan. But should you come across such an off-kilter abomination at your local watering hole, do yourself and the world a favour, find another bar.

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