Vintage Cocktails: The Mighty Manhattan

Though I'm a fan of pre-Prohibition cocktails, I'm woefully uneducated in the ways of bourbon. So I turned to Chris Morris, master distiller at Woodford Reserve, who schooled me in the history of one of America's oldest drinks, the Manhattan.

Woodford Reserve is sponsoring a Manhattan mix-off Monday at the Museum of Natural Science (uh, naturally).

In addition to being a master distiller, Morris is also a cocktail historian, which is a great title.

"The Manhattan is one of the three American bourbon cocktails," he said. "It dates back to 1874 when it was invented at the Manhattan Club in Manhattan, New York." The other two cocktails, he said, are the mint julep, which dates to the early 1800s, and the Old Fashioned, invented in the 1880s. "The Manhattan is known around the world."

"In the mid-1880s there seems to be a lot of cocktail creativity," he said. "Though, as you know, there is a lot of legend and lore in cocktail history. With some of these drinks, it takes a bar, a famous bar or club to give it its name. But you start to see the same version of a drink showing up around the country."

The longevity of the drink, Morris said, is a result of its simplicity. As with the daiquiri, the list of possible customizations is endless. And, FYI, the Manhattan is one of David M. Embury's six classic drinks everyone must know.

"Because it's so simple, that lends it to a lot of creativity."

The basic Manhattan recipe is 2 oz bourbon or American whiskey, 1 oz red vermouth, a dash of bitters and a splash of cherry juice. Garnish with the cherry.

For a dry Manhattan, Morris says to leave out the juice and switch out the sweet red vermouth for white. A perfect Manhattan contains both types of vermouth.

But mixologists have gotten much more creative. Morris has tried a Mexican Manhattan: bourbon, anejo tequila and agave syrup, garnished with a plantain. He's also seen frequent use of maple syrup, "because Woodford Reserve has a bit of maple to it."

The bourbon maker is owned by Brown Forman, "founded in 1870 and the oldest spirits company in the US," Morris says, which explains his passion for America's classic drinks. He's worked for Woodford Reserve for 14 years. When I asked him what a master distiller does, he replied, "A master distiller is the luckiest person in the world."

The Manhattan Experience is free, but you must RSVP, which you can do on the Woodford Reserve website. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Monday.

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