RECIPE

Want to make a better Manhattan? Pay close attention to the vermouth

Ask the Oracle: What should I drink today? All signs point to a Manhattan, where every ingredient counts

By Erin Keane

Published October 22, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)

Manhattan cocktail (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)
Manhattan cocktail (Illustration by Ilana Lidagoster)

"The Oracle Pour" is Salon Food's spirits column that helps you decide what to drink tonight.

We don't give vermouth enough credit. After all this fortified wine has done for cocktails, it's still too often overlooked, with flashier bottles — your dazzling bourbons, those trendy amari — soaking up the bulk of our attention. As you mix yourself a cocktail with Italian vermouth, such as the Manhattan, consider the specific rich, sweet complexity the vermouth adds to the drink. Considering vermouth invites me to ponder what else enriches me that I take for granted. What else have I not been honoring? Am I passively accepting the default version of life, or choosing the experiences I want to have?

The elemental cocktail, created in the early 19th century, contains four ingredients — spirits, sugar, bitters, water — a combination instantly recognizable to fans of the Old-Fashioned. Vermouth picked up steam as an import in the middle of that century — sweet Italian, then dry French — eventually serving as the spirit base for a cocktail of its own, "a lighter . . . more sophisticated, more gentlemanly drink before dinner," writes Philip Greene in his tireless, indispensable history, "The Manhattan: The Story of the First Modern Cocktail." Somewhere around the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the next, the whiskey cocktail and the vermouth cocktail collided (Greene's book goes into deep and rich detail on the many disputed and disproven origin stories) and what we've come to know as the Manhattan took form: a mixed drink of whiskey, bitters and Italian vermouth, which provides enough sweetness that sugar as a standalone ingredient is no longer needed. 

RELATED: How to make a Rye Old-Fashioned, a classic 3-ingredient drink (plus ice)

Some Manhattan fans have strong preferences when it comes to their whiskey — bourbon or rye, and which bourbon or rye? — but vermouth is often still be an afterthought. Whatever's on the shelf. But you can't make a Manhattan without it. So why not experiment with different Italian vermouths and find the one that enhances and deepens your experience with the cocktail? 

Sweet vermouth does more than bring the sugar into the cocktail, after all. A quality vermouth has its own distinct flavors, which Americans would know more about had we kept old-fashioned vermouth cocktails, where individual brands could truly shine, on the standard bar menu. As a fortified wine, vermouth is "lighter" — as in, it packs less of an alcoholic punch — and as such makes a delightful and no less complex base for drinks we usually enjoy with the harder stuff. In the summer, I like mine with tonic water and an orange slice, and you can also just sip it old-school as an aperitif. Getting to know vermouth on its own helps develop preferences for the right vermouth for your Manhattan.


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Not sure where to start? Here are two I like for a Manhattan for different reasons, from the same company: Carpano's Antica Formula and Punt e Mes. The Antica Formula dates back to 1786, and for my money it's a standard-bearer of the genre, with a round, complex sweetness that balances a spicier rye whiskey or a higher-proof whiskey with more of a bite. Punt e Mes came along about a century later, when a customer asked for the standard with a bit more of a bitter flavor, which stands up nicely to your sweeter, vanilla- and caramel-forward bourbons. Don't forget to refrigerate after opening.

Ingredients:

Serving size: One drink

  • 2 oz. bourbon or rye
  • 1 oz. Italian sweet vermouth
  • Angostura bitters
  • Good cocktail cherries, like Luxardo or Peureux Griottines

Gear:

You don't need specialty equipment to make a simple cocktail — you can mix this drink in a pint glass. Improvise with what you have. But here's what I keep at hand:

Instructions:

Chill a cocktail glass. In your mixer glass, stir bourbon, vermouth and bitters with ice until good and chilled. Then strain into the chilled glass, and garnish with a cocktail cherry or three on a pick.

Variations:

Infinite variations exist on this classic modern cocktail. A Dry Manhattan uses dry vermouth instead of sweet. Take the Dry Manhattan and sub in gin, and suddenly you've wandered into the Martini neighborhood. Back the car up: Take a traditional Manhattan and cut the whiskey in half, then add an ounce of Campari, and you have yourself a Boulevardier. Or ditch the whiskey all together and use rum instead — that's a Palmetto. 

More Oracle Pour:

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Erin Keane

Erin Keane is Salon's Editor in Chief.

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Bourbon Cocktails Manhattan Oracle Pour Recipe Vermouth