2. Manhattan cocktail

13 Jul

Madame spoke fifteen or twenty words of English; one who was godless taught her how to compound a certain drink, and she was thereafter proud in the ability to name it thus: “Mahn’ta Coque’ta”, which being her struggle to achieve “Manhattan Cocktail”, and as it remained exactly that after a practice of something like a hundred times a day for five years, indicates her average success with the language.

— E. W. Townsend, “The Début of Jack”, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, vol. 101 (1900), pp. 100-07 (p. 101).

An unpleasant odor had begun to taint the air of the room, as if a Manhattan cocktail had met its death somewhere under the flooring or in the walls.

— Edward S. Van Zile, “Harold Bradley, Playwright”, Lipincott’s Monthly Magazine, vol. 62 (July 1898), pp. 3-80 (p. 47).

Named after the Manhattan Works, a jute mill established in Dundee in 1873.

Just kidding. As with many cocktails—as with the cocktail as such—the origins of the Manhattan are murky and the subject of considerable speculation. For instance, Jefferson Williamson suggested in The American Hotel: An Anecdotal History that it was called after the Manhattan Hotel at Madison Avenue and 42nd St, which after 25 years of existence was converted into an office building in 1921 ([New York: Knopf, 1930], p. 261). That would mean the cocktail had to have been invented in 1896 at the earliest, but we can find attestations long that date. Here’s one, a brief skit in the humorous weekly Puck:

Before the Bar

The Heathen: I can get a better Manhattan cocktail than that in Brooklyn, any day.

The Christian: Ah, my boy! But remember, you acquired your taste in Brooklyn.

— Puck, vol. 31 (6 April, 1893), p. 103.

And here’s the earliest reference to Manhattans, outside bar manuals and recipe books, that my research has turned up so far. It’s from a jokey sidebar in Life  entitled “Sportmen’s Vocabulary”. Under the heading “Hunting” we find the following:

Full cock—An inebriated rooster.

Half cocked—Six Manhattan cocktails.

Life, vol. 7 (28 January, 1886), p. 68.

Just as dubious is the story that it received its debut at a banquet in the Manhattan Club hosted by Winston Churchill’s mother in 1874, not least for the reason that she wasn’t in America at the time. But I have found an unusual claim about the genesis of the cocktail, first published in the Baltimore Sun, which I’ll rehearse in more detail another time:

Bladensburg’s fame lies chiefly in the fact that here was fought the battle which gave the British possession of the national capital in 1814 and here the dashing Decatur was six years later to fall in a duel on ground reddened before and thereafter in affairs of honor! It has other distinctions as well. A half century ago it was a famous watering place and the proprietor of one of its ancient hotels will today produce long clippings to show that the immortal Manhattan cocktail was invented in his hostelry by a distraught southerner there on a mission of honor.

— “Bladensburg”, La Folette’s, vol. 3:45 (November 11, 1911), pp. 10-11 (p. 10).

No doubt it’s a tall tale, but it’s a good one.

Leaving such fanciful origin stories to one side, we know that Jerry Thomas added the Manhattan to the 1876 reissue of his pioneering How to Mix Drinks (first published in 1862). The recipe printed there is strikingly familiar, although the vermouth predominates (the vermouth as of matter of course would have been sweet, which is why Thomas does not specify it).

Take 2 dashes of Curaçoa or Maraschino.

1 pony of rye whiskey.

1 wine-glass of vermouth.

3 dashes of Boker’s bitters.

The garnish was a quarter of a slice of lemon.

The important differences between a nineteenth-century Manhattan and a standard modern one (inasmuch as one can generalize) are these. First, whiskey outweighs vermouth in today’s Manhattans. Second, Manhattans were originally made with rye whiskey. Before bourbon took over the American whiskey market after the Second World War, it was largely confined to the South. Yankees drank rye.

2 oz. bourbon or rye whiskey

1 oz. sweet vermouth

3 dashes Angostura bitters.

Maraschino cherry for garnish.

From: The Judge, vol. 25, no. 637 (30 December 1893), p. 441.


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