Weekend Cocktail: The Manhattan Madness Tournament

Weekend Cocktail: The Manhattan Madness Tournament

A group of friends and I conducted a mini-tournament to decide which style of Manhattan cocktail deserves to be known as the champion.
Neal Dewing
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NCAA Basketball has wound down, and America has learned yet again never to trust anyone from North Carolina. There were precious few people who predicted the course of the tournament. I’m given to understand that this year something like 99 percent of brackets perished ingloriously on the first night of the tourney. I’ve seen quite a few photos of crying fans and screaming Ashley Judds, which makes the whole affair seem altogether unpleasant.

I don’t follow the sport, but can’t begrudge anyone his or her passion. I have my own enthusiasms, after all. Happily, all the excitement gave me an idea (just in time for the start of baseball season): why not develop a bracketology more in keeping with my own interests?

To that end, welcome to MANHATTAN MADNESS.

There are few cocktails more deserving of in-depth study than the Manhattan. At its most essential, it consists of two parts whiskey to one part sweet vermouth, with several healthy dashes of Angostura bitters. It’s easy to prepare, and improves with quality ingredients. Boozy and complex, it appeals to the fellas and to the ladies. One is more than sufficient to set you on an even keel after a long day.

Because of its simplicity, the Manhattan lends itself to experimentation. There’s no shortage of alternate recipes out there. For my mini-tournament I identified eight promising variations, including what I consider the classic version.

Each drink was randomly seeded, to prevent my admittedly shameless bias from influencing the matchups. Unless otherwise noted, the individual ingredients and preparation methods were the same across each drink to at least take a stab at consistency.

Meet the Manhattan Madness Judging Panel

I also employed a panel of judges to help evaluate the contenders. These red-blooded, booze-loving Americans were tasked with sampling two drinks in a matchup and voting for the one they preferred, until a champion stood above the rest. Allow me to introduce the tasters:

These red-blooded, booze-loving Americans were tasked with sampling two drinks in a matchup and voting for the one they preferred, until a champion stood above the rest.

Andy: Andy is my uncle. His contributions have graced this column before—notably, his mint julep recipe.

Mary: My aunt, who I believe favors wine but can certainly appreciate a well-crafted cocktail—and the ones I make, as well.

Amanda: One of our oldest friends, who admittedly does not often hit the hard stuff. However, she’s a good sport and agreed to participate on the condition that I actually delivered an article about it.

Rachel (a.k.a. Mrs. Dewing): My wife, gracious as ever. She provides photography for these columns, the quality of which far outstrips the writing. She enjoys a mixed drink nearly as much as I do.

Neal: That’s me. I made the things; I was damn well going to sample them.

As the night went on, the tournament proved to hold some surprises. Perhaps they won’t be as vexing to you as the upsets in your bracket, but for me it was a hell of a ride.

Manhattan Madness Round One

Game 1: Classic Manhattan vs. Seattle Manhattan. FINAL RESULT: 3-2, Seattle.

This matchup pitted a drink that was all about fundamentals against an unorthodox recipe that stretched the bounds of what can reasonably be called a Manhattan.

Going in, the classic was heavily favored to win (by me). We tasted it first, and it received the expected high marks. A higher-proof rye like Rittenhouse stands up to mixing very well. The drink hit the right notes, especially with the male judges, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the Seattle’s response. The flavorful oddball quickly won over the women, who due to my own lack of forethought comprised the majority of judges. Ultimately, the Seattle Manhattan’s smooth, sweet, distinct notes of coffee gave it the edge over the favorite.

Classic Manhattan

This is the Platonic ideal of a Manhattan.

  • 2 parts Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond 100-proof rye
  • 1 part Carpano Antica vermouth
  • 3-4 heavy dashes Angostura bitters
  • cherry for garnish.

Add ice to a mixing glass. Add liquid ingredients. Stir smoothly for about 50 rotations, which will ensure it is ice-cold but not too diluted. Strain into cocktail glass and garnish with a maraschino cherry.

Andy: “Not much of a burn, really.”

Amanda: “I have a burn, in my esophagus.”

Andy: “I call it ‘warm.’”

Rachel: “The rye gives it some definite spice.”

Andy: “A sweet bouquet.”

Seattle Manhattan

  • 3 parts Jim Beam bourbon
  • 1 part espresso vodka (or coffee liqueur)
  • 1 part kahlua
  • 1 part sweet vermouth

Add ingredients to an ice-filled shaker. Shake gently for about 30 seconds, and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with some whole coffee beans if you like.

Women judges: “Mmmmmm!”

Mary: “It’s smooth like the Kahlua, but I don’t really taste the Kahlua. I taste the espresso.”

Rachel: “It’s not too sweet.”

Neal: “Definitely tastes…all right.”

Andy: “I call it distracting.”

Game 2: Aged Manhattan vs. Bourbon Manhattan. FINAL RESULT: 3-2, Bourbon.

The Aged Manhattan is identical to the classic, but was left for ten days in a sealed bottle with charred oak staves to soak up their flavor. This speeds an aging process that would normally take months, and gives it a broader, richer flavor.

The Bourbon was simply the better-realized drink that night; but if the Aged cocktail could be refined and dial in to its potential, who can say what the results of a rematch might be?

The Bourbon Manhattan is a solid all-around contender. While rye is the classic base liquor, bourbon is perfectly suitable. The better the bourbon, the better the drink, and this Bourbon Manhattan was made with 10-year-old Russell’s Reserve to give it some more presence.

It was a close contest, and the judges were split. The Aged Manhattan did offer a unique, slightly oaked taste, with strong but not unpleasant notes of charcoal that put one in mind of a Scotch. The Bourbon was strong, smooth, and flavorful.

While the Aged definitely had a lot going for it, it had perhaps been incubating for just a couple days too long. It tasted good, just unbalanced. The Bourbon was simply the better-realized drink that night; but if the Aged cocktail could be refined and dial in to its potential, who can say what the results of a rematch might be? If sports were all about the numbers, nobody would have a reason to watch.

Aged Manhattan

  • 2 parts Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond 100-proof rye
  • 1 part Carpano Antica vermouth
  • 3-4 heavy dashes Angostura bitters
  • cherry for garnish.
  • Aged for ten days using charred oak staves

Strain aged mixture through cheesecloth into mixing glass. Stir and strain as with Classic Manhattan.

Rachel: “It smells like a wood stove. I like it.”

Amanda: “It’s really different—I haven’t had one like that before.”

Andy: “I don’t taste as much of the smoke as I smell. It almost comes off like a Scotch. It has scotch-like tendencies.”

Mary: “Lots of different flavors at play.”

Neal: “It’s just not quite there; lots of potential but needs more work.”

Bourbon Manhattan

  • 2 parts Russell’s Reserve 10-year-old bourbon
  • 1 Carpano Antica vermouth
  • 3-4 heavy dashes of Angostura bitters
  • cherry for garnish

Stir; strain.

Amanda: “Very smooth, easy to drink.”

Mary: “A little burn. Good for sipping.”

Andy: “Acceptable, though.”

Game 3: Black Manhattan vs. White Manhattan. FINAL RESULT: 5-0, Black

Sometimes random matches seem less than random, and a little too on the nose. This was all the computer’s fault. Given the news over the last few months, I was concerned that this matchup had the potential to be a source of several unfortunate jokes. Luckily, we resisted the impulse to yell things like “Drink up! Don’t puke!” or to endlessly quote “Blazing Saddles.” Strictly business, here, no politics.

It smelled great, but it tasted like generic cold medicine.

As it happened, this wasn’t even a contest. The White Manhattan stumbled out of the gate and never recovered. It was made using unaged whiskey, Benedictine, Dolin Blanc, and orange bitters. It smelled great, but it tasted like generic cold medicine.

The Black Manhattan’s use of the amaro Averna in place of sweet vermouth gave it a certain musty, herbal flavor that made it quite appealing to the judges. Using bourbon also gave it far more sweetness than the white whiskey, which needed Benedictine in order to avoid tasting like turpentine.

The Black Manhattan was, at least, not horrible. Hard to say whether it won on the merits or just drew an opponent that choked.

Black Manhattan

  • 2 parts Jim Beam
  • 1 part Averna
  • 3-4 dashes Angostura bitters
  • cherry for garnish

Stir; strain.

Mary: “This smells like an old person’s closet…in a good way!”

Amanda: “It went down pretty easy. Maybe it’s musky? Maybe that’s why it smells…off? It’s pleasant, though.”

White Manhattan

  • 3 parts unaged (white) whiskey
  • 1 part Benedictine
  • 1 part Dolin Blanc
  • 3 dashes orange bitters

Stir; strain.

Rachel: “This smells like a public restroom air freshener. Or cleaning supplies.”

Mary: “It tastes like cough syrup.”

Neal: “Yeah, this is gross. Sorry. I followed the recipe…I’m mostly disappointed in myself.”

Game 4: Mystery Manhattan vs. Shaken Manhattan. Final Result: 5-0, Mystery

I was keen to get to this matchup, for one reason: I have long been an advocate against the Shaken Manhattan. I have a chip on my shoulder, and I freely admit it.

A standard Manhattan should never be shaken, yet at almost any bar that is what you’ll get when you order one.

A standard Manhattan should never be shaken, yet at almost any bar that is what you’ll get when you order one. You’re presented with a bowl of diluted, flavorless liquor that is devoid of character or bite. It may also have annoying bits of ice floating on top of it. Shaken Manhattans are inferior in every regard, and I hate them.

The Mystery Manhattan made short work of the watery, weak Shaken version. It stomped all over it, and then ground its face into the dirt and stole its milk money. Nobody liked the Shaken Manhattan. Nobody.

I wish I could say with any authority what is actually in the Mystery Manhattan, but aside from “a LOT of very strong alcohol” I can’t be sure. Based on the seasonal offering from Husk, a fine restaurant in Charleston, South Carolina, it has a good flavor. There’s a bit of the oak from the barrel and several other additions that come together to make it worth exploring.

A bottle of this concoction was placed in my hands one evening by the publisher of this esteemed online magazine of culture and opinion. He drew it from his own private reserve. The recipe is approximately reproduced below, but perhaps due to its high-octane nature the exact proportions related to me were somewhat…fuzzy.

Mystery Manhattan

Actual recipe at the link.

  • Unverified demon whiskey
  • Hellfire
  • Madness
  • cherry for garnish

Stir, strain. Avoid open flames.

Mary: “I swear it just burned my nose hairs!”

Andy: “It’s… a sipping drink.”

Rachel: “I actually like the taste, compared to a regular Manhattan.”

Amanda: “It’s not bad it’s just…strong.”

Shaken Manhattan

  • 2 parts Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond 100-proof rye
  • 1 part Carpano Antica vermouth
  • 3-4 heavy dashes Angostura bitters
  • cherry for garnish.

Shake vigorously for a few seconds, strain into a cocktail glass.

Rachel: “This is much more watery than the regular Manhattan. It doesn’t really have a burn at all.”

Amanda: “It does taste watery.”

Neal: “Just not enough presence.” [Spends five minutes explaining that shaken Manhattans are inferior and he knew this beforehand but wanted to prove it to everyone.]

Manhattan Madness Round Two

Advancing: Black vs. Seattle; Bourbon vs. Mystery

Round one concluded with several of my favorites discarded. The only event that didn’t hold a surprise for me was the inglorious defeat of the execrable Shaken Manhattan. Most shocking to me was the loss of the Classic Manhattan to the Seattle. Seattle wasn’t done yet, as events would prove.

To nurse my offended sensibilities, I made good use of the losers’ bracket.

To nurse my offended sensibilities, I made good use of the losers’ bracket. This was a far less complicated undertaking, and each contender was equally ranked—on a straight line into my mouth.

At this point, our judges knew what to expect from the remaining contenders. Some patterns had developed: a preference for sweet over spicy; for substantial taste; for some bite, but not too much.

Game 5: Black Manhattan vs. Seattle Manhattan. FINAL RESULT: 4-1, Seattle

The Black Manhattan took on Seattle with its herbal, slightly musty notes. While it made a good showing, ultimately the strength of Seattle’s configuration held. Perhaps still smarting from the earlier upset, one judge voted for Black. However, the writing was on the wall. Despite having more of an alcoholic presence, and hewing more closely to the standard Manhattan formulation, Black just couldn’t overcome Seattle’s pleasant, coffee-infused taste. Seattle won decisively.

Seattle

Rachel: “Yep, still like it!”

Amanda: “Yep.”

Mary: “Yes.”

Andy: “It actually tastes better this time.”

Neal: “It smells like a tootsie roll.”

Black

Mary: “Very burny.”

Amanda: “Which was that one up against last time? The White? Oh, no wonder it won.”

Andy: “Tough call, actually.”

Game 6: Bourbon Manhattan vs. Mystery Manhattan. FINAL RESULT: 5-0, Bourbon

The Bourbon Manhattan went into this round after just squeaking by the first round. It was pitted against a drink that had crushed its last competitor and wrung the life from it before tossing it aside like a crumpled grocery list.

This ended up a cocktail version of the Rumble in the Jungle with Bourbon playing the role of Muhammad Ali.

As it turned out, strength isn’t everything. This ended up a cocktail version of the Rumble in the Jungle with Bourbon playing the role of Muhammad Ali. The Bourbon proved to be more nimble on the tongue, and defied Mystery Manhattan’s attempt to roll over it.

One of the fundamental qualities of any cocktail is balance. In this case, balance beat brawn in a unanimous decision.

It is perhaps worth noting that on a whim I made a second batch of the Mystery Manhattan, but this time against all my deeply held beliefs I decided to shake it. This smoothed out the mix considerably, and made it much more palatable. It pains me to say it, but if a shaken Mystery Manhattan had been in the game, we might have a different result.

Mystery

Andy: “This is more intense the second time.”

Rachel: “It’s too intense.”

Mandy: “That’s moonshiney to me.”

Mary: “It feels like you could set it on fire.”

Andy: “We could try that if it loses!”

Bourbon

Everyone at once: “Yep.”

Rachel: “I like that bourbon one. I’m surprised, because I usually like the rye.”

Manhattan Madness Championship Round

Advancing: Bourbon vs. Seattle

Round two’s results were not as personally upsetting to me as Round one’s. No doubt this was partly a consequence of the aforementioned losers’ bracket I’d consumed, not to mention the normal course of sampling that comprised the competition. That’s a lot of words to say that by the final matchup of the evening I was well on my way to being terrifically drunk. Of course, that is very much the point of having more than a single Manhattan, if you want my honest opinion.

The judges were loosened up and ready to cap off an eventful tournament.

Game 7: Bourbon Manhattan vs. Seattle Manhattan. FINAL RESULT: 5-0, Bourbon

What a matchup! Here we have the Cinderella story, Seattle’s weird coffee-laden take on the cocktail dispatched the competition on the strength of its sweetness. Standing in opposition, Bourbon’s tweak of the classic formula won over the naysayers after a hotly contested first round.

What would happen? Who would reign supreme? I favored Seattle, based purely on a cynical guess that the women would pick the one that tasted more like candy.

Showing once again that my instincts for this sort of thing are pure garbage, Bourbon won in a unanimous decision. The judges all cited the balanced flavor of the classic version, but with a smoothness one expects from aged bourbon. To them, it just seemed to have more of what a Manhattan should be. While the Seattle was a delicious drink in its own right, it ultimately fell victim to its own showboating.

Victory went to a cocktail that relied on the fundamentals: good ingredients, careful preparation, and balanced composition: The Bourbon Manhattan.

Neal Dewing lives and works in Portsmouth, Virginia. He is the co-host of The Fifth Estate, a podcast examining culture and politics.

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