To the uninitiated, the world of cocktails may seem like a labyrinth of obscure ingredients compounded by exacting recipes. While this may be reality for a bartender at a four-star hotel, you can make excellent cocktails by understanding the common components and principles for all cocktails.
Whether wearing a vest, gauge earrings and thick-rim glasses or classic whites with a black tie, any great bartender is familiar with the work of David Embury. If there were ever a template for the authors of legendary cocktail treatises, Embury would not fit it. By day, Embury was a tax attorney in a major New York law firm. By night, it appears, (little is known about him, except for this obituary) he was a pro bono drink mixer for his fellow Masons, developing the craft distilled in his book, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks. (One would assume that the Masons took a night off from world domination when Mr. Embury was behind the bar.)
In the book, Embury is revealed as a crotchety cocktail snob. (As your humble columnist can attest, serving excellent cocktails can dull your guests’ sensitivity to crotchetiness). While his attitude lends power to his prose, the real contribution of his book is his identification of the principles and components underlying all great cocktails.
Embury’s components are slightly different for the two meta-categories of cocktails: the sour and the aromatic cocktail. Today, we will be talking about an aromatic cocktail, the manhattan. The first component of an aromatic cocktail is the base, a high-proof liquor. This liquor is the dominant ingredient in the drink, both by volume and flavor. Ideally in the manhattan, you will use rye, but you can substitute Canadian Whiskey for a similar flavor or bourbon which will yield a sweeter concoction. The second component is an aromatic modifying agent(s). Though only a small portion of the cocktail by volume, the modifying agent accounts for the character of the cocktail. In the manhattan, we will use two modifying agents: sweet vermouth and bitters. The last component is a special flavoring or coloring agent. Usually, this is a concentrated, sweet liqueur, like triple sec. In the classic aromatic cocktails (martini and manhattan), this component is not necessary. It’s more common to the sour cocktails, (e.g. the sidecar). I will walk you through a sour cocktail in a later iteration of this column.
Under Embury’s rubric, the standard components should be combined in pursuit of his five normative principles. I will illustrate these principles by explaining how I mix my ideal manhattan.
- It should be made from good-quality, high-proof liquors.
As I stated above, rye is the ideal base liquor for your manhattan. My preferred brand is Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye. It has an excellent spicy flavor and the price is quite reasonable (~$21 for 750ml). Unfortunately, Rittenhouse can be difficult to find due to limited production and high demand. More readily available brands are Old Overholt (~$18) and Bulleit (~$35). For vermouth, I use the standard, Martini and Rossi Sweet Vermouth (~$9 for 1L). I have heard others swear by expensive, boutique vermouths, but I have never tried them. And last, you can use the classic Angostura Bitters or Fee Brothers which I recommended last week.
- It should whet rather than dull the appetite. Thus, it should never be sweet or syrupy.
- It should be dry, with sufficient alcoholic flavor, yet smooth and pleasing to the palate.
Principles two and three go to the heart of the cocktail: the proportions. I prefer a 3 to 1 rye-vermouth ratio. This yields a pretty dry cocktail. If you have a softer palette, you might start with 2.5 to 1 or 2 to 1. If you’re using bourbon, never drop below 2.5 to 1, as the bourbon will lend its own sweetness to the drink. The bitters will give the drink an additional dry twist. I prefer two healthy dashes, but you should experiment. Lastly, I recommend against adding maraschino cherry juice to the cocktail, as some beginner’s are wont to do.
- It should be pleasing to the eye.
This begins with an appetizing color. The combination of rye and vermouth should yield an appealing amber color. You should always stir the manhattan, rather than shaking, so that you do not end up with a bubbly, opaque mess.
The cocktail’s amber color is enhanced by a stemmed cherry (or two) at the bottom of the glass. (For the proper cherry, see Monday’s Tip of the Day).
Last you will need to decide on the proper glass. I prefer a rocks glass, regardless of whether my cocktail is served on the rocks. It connotes a nice casualness and simplicity. For cocktails served without ice, you can use a stemmed cocktail glass. This should keep your cocktail colder for longer because your hand will be making less contact with the vessel.
- It should be well-iced.
I recommend that you ice and strain your manhattan. This yields a more consistent cocktail than serving it on the rocks. When on the rocks, you start with a harsher cocktail at the beginning and a watered-down cocktail at the end, moving in the inverse of your palette as it adjusts to the flavors and alcohol content.
Remember, all the principles above are not absolute, but rather based on my preferences. I recommend that you start with a manhattan that closely resembles the recipe below, and work from there. The importance of understanding Embury’s principles and components is that it will give you a rubric to understand the classic cocktails and even create your own.
1.5 oz Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond Rye Whiskey
.5 oz sweet vermouth
2 healthy dashes of Angostura bitters
1 maraschino cherry soaked in maraschino liqueur
Combine ingredients in cocktail shaker. Fill shaker half way with ice. Stir the contents for 10 seconds. Strain the ingredients over a maraschino cherry into a rocks glass. Enjoy!