Smile Politely

From the Brass Rail to the upscale: Manhattans five ways

A cocktail can’t get any more hip than one that’s named after the largest, most bustling borough in the country: Manhattan. So that makes me wonder why some people think of the Manhattan as an old-man drink. Maybe too many of us saw our grandfathers nursing a plain, honey-amber Manhattan with a cherry in the bottom after an excruciating day at the office. But after a day like that, you’d need a savory but smooth drink with character like the Manhattan. Now, this survivalist cocktail that still hangs around from the late 1800s has so many variations that I decided to take a Manhattan tour through our own downtown Champaign.  

A Brief History

A true Manhattan or any of the drink variants contain whiskey, vermouth, and bitters at minimum. Your friendly neighborhood bartender will likely adjust the proportions of whiskey to vermouth based on the type and flavor of whiskey used, but 2:1 whiskey to vermouth is typical. Bartenders used rye whiskey in the original Manhattans, although, as you’ll see from the tasting below, bourbon serves as the more common ingredient these days.  

Manhattan at the Brass Rail

Ingredients: Jim Beam bourbon, sweet vermouth, bitters, maraschino cherry  

When I sat on the old, brown vinyl barstool at the Brass Rail and asked for a Manhattan, I wasn’t sure exactly what was going to happen. With only a couple of beers on tap, and most beers sold by the bottle or the can, I questioned whether the bartender might give me a dirty look or whether I would need to tell him the proportions of the drink, like I would if I ordered it at a campustown bar. Neither happened. A little puzzled but unfazed, he said, “I’m not sure if we have any cherries.” But he quickly located the garnish, and whipped up a small, perfectly solid Manhattan from their rail bourbon, Jim Beam. Price: $4.50 

Black Cherry Manhattan at Boltini

Ingredients: Red Stag bourbon, Vya sweet vermouth, bitters  

Boltini’s menu lists seven Manhattans ranging from the plain to those with modern, fruity twists. Opting for some variety in my tour of Manhattans, I chose the latter and got their Black Cherry Manhattan, a vivid red cocktail. It turns out the primary ingredient, Red Stag bourbon, strongly mimics the mouthfeel of cherry syrup, so the mixed drink does the same even with the vermouth and bitters to offset the coating. I’ll classify this as a dessert Manhattan. Sweet cherry lovers, this is your drink, but I couldn’t quite finish it. Next time I’ll try one of the other six Manhattans on the list, including the classic variations like the Rob Roy, that might align more with my preferences. Price: $8.00 

RM Manhattan at Radio Maria

Ingredients: Bulleit Bourbon, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters 

The blue uplighting on the Radio Maria bar prevents me from reporting the exact shade of the cocktail, but I know Bulleit Bourbon’s deep amber color probably carries through even in a mixed drink the way the flavor does, and you’d likely be able to see the deep color if you sat at a table. Bulleit Bourbon’s vanilla front and caramel finish swirls together with the vermouth and bitters, leaving you with an even character throughout the RM Manhattan. Price: $8.00 

Gingerman at Seven Saints

Ingredients: Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Domaine de Canton Ginger Liqueur, simple syrup, muddled ginger, and bitters, then garnished with a slice of ginger  

The Gingerman (Ginger Manhattan), a creation of Seven Saints general manager Andy Borbely, hasn’t made it on the cocktail menu yet, but you can and should request it if you like ginger. I freely admit that I adore the flavor of ginger. I’d probably grate fresh ginger into my breakfast cereal if I thought it would taste good, so one would expect me to like this drink. But what I really enjoy about the cocktail is its balance, not the ginger. Through the tang of the muddled ginger, the spice of the ginger liqueur, and the touch of sweetness from the simple syrup, you can still taste that the base of this drink is a classic, savory, bourbon-based Manhattan. Price: $8.50 

Perfect Manhattan at Bacaro

Ingredients: Michter’s Rye Whiskey, Vya Sweet Vermouth, Vya Dry Vermouth, bitters, Luxardo maraschino syrup and a cherry from the same jar 

The recipe for a Perfect Manhattan differs slightly from a traditional Manhattan, in that it contains two types of vermouth: sweet and dry. Brief speculation on the history of the variant’s adjective, “perfect,” leads me to believe that it probably derived from the two types of vermouth, because the cocktail is neither too sweet nor too dry, but just how someone liked it. Bacaro’s Perfect Manhattan, described by a fellow drinker as “almost comically perfect,” clearly excels because of the quality ingredients stocked behind the bar. Even the high-end cherry improves the cocktail’s flavor. I’ve made many Perfect Manhattans at home, and none turned out this beautifully. Price: $9.00 

Thirsty Around Town explores alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages found in different venues around the Champaign-Urbana area. If you have a favorite obscure drink, email me. I want to try it!

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