The Manhattan in its most common form is one of the most straightforward classic cocktails — two parts whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, a dash or two of bitters. But that outward simplicity is deceiving. Will it be bourbon or rye, and which bourbon or rye? Then, which vermouth pairs most harmoniously with that whiskey? What will that magic ratio of whiskey to vermouth be? Which little bottle of bitters provides the appropriate accents? Will it all be vigorously shaken or patiently stirred? Garnished with a toxic red "maraschino" cherry (the horrors!) or something more artisanal in nature like the real deal from Italy's Luxardo brand? The minute but meaningful variations are infinite.
The Manhattan has existed for more than 100 years, and its proper makeup has come under intense debate over that time. Some insist there is but one true way. Others are eager to uncover combinations that tug at the equilibrium of sweetness and spice, bright herbal highlights and booming, bitter bass notes. While I'm open to variations, I prefer a rye base. The angular spice of rye contrasts so nicely with the layered bittersweetness of a good vermouth, whereas brown-sugar-y bourbon can lead to a sweet-on-sweet overload.
So what bars in Atlanta hit Manhattan high points? Whose fall flat? For this Smackdown, I took up the task of discovery. The rules were simple. Each bartender was asked for his or her house Manhattan. No white whiskey, no Scotch, no Red Hooks or Rob Roys, or any other of the multitudes of Manhattan relatives that populate bar menus. I wanted to know the specific whiskey and vermouth involved, the technique employed. And I wanted to unearth cocktail enlightenment, a Manhattan moment of eye-closing bliss.
Now, it must be said, any good bartender can tailor a Manhattan to your tastes. But really getting to know what type of Manhattan is your Manhattan takes trial and error. I was amazed at the diversity of approaches found around town. Let the trials begin.
If you like your steak well-done: You would think a great steakhouse like Bone's would make a great Manhattan to match. You'd be wrong. First off, Bones goes to an extreme in its ratio of whiskey to vermouth – 2.75 ounces of Maker's Mark to just 0.25 ounces of Martini & Rossi. That's basically just enough vermouth to ruin a good pour of bourbon. And Bones sticks with Martini & Rossi — it's not bad stuff, but the Cocchi vermouth di Torino and the Carpano Antica vermouths that show up in many of the best Manhattans around town are far more nuanced. Bones also gets lazy with the construction of its drink. My bartender gave the mixing cup a lazy, open-top shake. No stirring, no real shaking either. Then, he topped it off with a standard-issue, industrial-strength cherry (one of only two Manhattans in this Smackdown to do so). Sadly, this rendition is not worthy of the Manhattan name. It's not even worthy of (name-your-least-favorite-New-Jersey-city). While it was the cheapest of all the Manhattans I tried, it was also the worst value. $8.50. 3130 Piedmont Road. 404-237-2663. www.bonesrestaurant.com.
If you like a lemony herbal edge: Bocado sets its Manhattan apart with a spritz of St. George absinthe in the glass before the stirred drink gets poured in, lending the cocktail a subtle herbal presence, especially through the finish. With a base of High West Double Rye, Carpano Antica vermouth, and a squeeze of lemon peel over the top, Bocado's Manhattan has a drier, lighter feel than most, apropos to the light and airy open bar. $10.50. 887 Howell Mill Road. 404-815-1399. www.bocadoatlanta.com.
If you like smoke-and-mirrors intrigue: The Smoked Manhattan is the house special at Chops. When I asked about it, the bartender noted that it was somewhat polarizing, and that if I didn't like it, she'd be happy to concoct a more standard version. I had to give it a shot. The bar was out of the Four Roses single-barrel bourbon typically used, and subbed in Woodford Reserve. Shaken heartily — the only shaken Manhattan I found — with some Qi black tea liqueur, Carpano Antica, and Fee Brothers barrel-aged bitters, the result was a balanced, frothy concoction, but with a strange finish that reminded me of a cold-remedy combo of hot tea and cough syrup. Sure enough, I asked for a replacement, and the other bartender working the bar commented that he didn't like their Smoked Manhattan either. Chops' standard Manhattan also defaults to Woodford Reserve, comes across as too bourbon-heavy, and loses points for the standard-issue bright red cherry. $10.75. 70 W. Paces Ferry Road. 404-262-2675. www.buckheadrestaurants.com.
If you're down with the old: Barkeep Evan Milliman at Cakes & Ale likes to use well-aged bourbons in his Manhattans. My recent visit turned up a pour of 12-year-old Old Medley — a not-too-common bottle that's a step above typical bar standards such as Woodford Reserve or Maker's Mark. The Cocchi vermouth di Torino that Evan uses works well alongside the smooth sweetness of Old Medley. A long stir over ice before straining keeps things cold and crisp. While Old Medley is only 87 proof, it comes through just a touch strong on the finish. This was my favorite bourbon-based Manhattan in the Smackdown, but because Old Medley retails for $50 a bottle, it also clocked in as the most expensive. $15. 155 Sycamore St. 404-377-7994. www.cakesandalerestaurant.com.
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