The Best Manhattan You’ll Ever Drink
Story by Molly Wellmann; Photography by Mike Schalk
There wasn’t much of a cocktail culture 10 years ago, and I was the only gal in town slinging freshly made cocktails with a side of history. I started getting noticed for it. Since then I’ve worked behind some of the finest bars in the Cincinnati area. I’ve been featured in magazines, blogs, and newspapers; won awards; written a cocktail book; and built seven businesses. I’m now the sole owner of Japp’s and Myrtle’s Punch House.
When you sit at my bar, I mix you a drink from long ago and tell its story. You are no longer just knocking back a drink—you are having an experience in another time and place. Some of the stories are true. Some have been passed down from person to person. Keep in mind that the persons doing the passing may not have been completely sober!
Sometimes, there are quite a few stories for one cocktail. In my book, Handcrafted Cocktails: The Mixologist’s Guide to Classic Drinks for Morning, Noon & Night, I picked out the ones I found the most entertaining. Let’s explore some stories about the creation of the lovely Manhattan, shall we?
After the Civil War, drinking in America was changing. As towns grew, more saloons, bars, and hotels with bars popped up. Bartenders were competing to have the best and newest drinks, using the newest products. One such product was vermouth.
Vermouth has been around for a long time. People have been fortifying wine all the way back to 1250 BC. In 1786, Antonio Benedetto Carpano of Turin, Italy, created a formula for a vermouth that was favored by the king of Italy. By the 1860s, Giuseppe Bernardino Carpano, Antonio’s nephew, was producing Carpano Italian vermouth for export, and most of it was going to the United States.
By the late 1870s, more and more drinks were being created with the addition of vermouth from Italy. One of those creations was a mixture of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters—the Manhattan. According to cocktail historian David Wondrich in his book Imbibe, the first mention of the Manhattan in print came in a letter to New York’s Olean Democrat dated September 1882: “It is but a short time ago that a mixture of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters came into vogue.”
But who invented this wonderful mixture? We may never know. Most bartenders created drinks on the fly. Some wrote recipes down, but most shared them by word of mouth. The recipe for the Manhattan has been included, in one way or another, in almost every bar manual dating to the mid-1890s. There are a few variations. Some call for a dash of absinthe or of Maraschino liqueur. Others include different types of bitters and/or whiskeys in different amounts.
Some credit a Bowery bartender with creating the Manhattan. Others claim the Manhattan Club invented the cocktail for a reception for Samuel J. Tilden and William C. Wickham on December 29, 1874. Then there is a group that says Lady Jennie Jerome Churchill came up with the drink. I can see how the story could have gotten jumbled in a late-night discussion over three or six Manhattans.
The Manhattan Club itself has had its home in three different New York mansions. It was located at the Benkard Mansion on Fifth Street from 1865 until 1890. In 1874, when the soirée for Tilden, called “the greatest gathering of Democrats ever brought together,” was held, I could imagine that a special mixture of whiskey, vermouth, and bitters might have been served during the 12-course dinner. I can also see how imbibing two or three more delicious Manhattans might cause Lady Churchill to get mixed in there.
You see, by 1899 the Manhattan Club was moving into its third property, on 26th and Madison. It had been purchased from the estate of “the King of Wall Street,” the late Leonard W. Jerome, who died in 1891. Jennie Jerome was Clarissa and Leonard Jerome’s daughter. As was popular in those days, Jennie spent a good deal of her time in Europe, hobnobbing with royalty. She eventually married Lord Randolph Churchill, and in 1874 she gave birth to Winston Churchill. A month later the Churchills hosted the party for Mr. Tilden, where they may have served my favorite drink.
All I know is that we weren’t there; we just have Manhattan-induced stories to rely on. We should, however, raise a glass to whoever actually did come up with the wonderful concoction. The Manhattan has stood the tests of time and taste. It is my opinion that if you are in the honorable profession of tending bar, the Manhattan is a drink that you must have in your bag of tricks. I leave you with my Starlight Room imperfect perfect recipe and a plea: For the love of all that is sacred, Don’t shake it!
The Imperfect Perfect Manhattan
- 2 ounces Wild Turkey 101 bourbon
- 1/2 ounce Carpano Antica sweet vermouth
- 3 dashes Woodford Reserve cherry bitters
- 3 dashes Dolin dry vermouth
Add 3 dashes of dry vermouth to a chilled cocktail glass. In a chilled mixing glass, add bourbon, sweet vermouth, and bitters. Add ice and stir until nicely chilled. Strain into the cocktail glass and garnish with a zest of orange peel.