| Arts & Culture
Food How My Maker’s Manhattan Made Me
I felt I had something to prove. But the Manhattan, unchanged since its nineteenth-century origins, has nothing to prove.
The kids are upstairs in bed, and we are all exhausted after our recent return home to New York from a six-week road trip. The minivan has been unpacked, including the boxes of Chartreuse and aged rum and mezcal that we travel with. The bags of our bar equipment rest on the kitchen floor, waiting to be put away after we’ve had some rest. Much of our trip was spent camping, or in remote towns with family members, and my husband and I did not want to risk not having supplies on hand to take care of our bespoke cocktail habit.
While I enjoy a good beer from time to time, I am not the kind of mom who uncorks a bottle of wine to unwind. I am the kind of mom who takes pleasure in the daily ritual of measuring three to four ingredients in a tiny measuring cup so I can end my day with a perfect Last Word or Corpse Reviver No. 2 or Mezcal Martinez.
As I write this, I am drinking 3 ounces of Sazerac rye, 1¼ ounce of Antica Formula vermouth, and a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters that I have stirred together over ice and strained into a chilled cocktail glass, garnished with a Luxardo maraschino cherry. This has become my preferred recipe for a homemade Manhattan—one of the less exciting sounding drinks in my oeuvre, perhaps, but also the drink that has played the most consistently important role in my life since I was a teenager.
Like many parents of young children weathering a pandemic, I have noticed the regularity of alcohol consumption in my life over the past couple of years. During lockdowns and schedule pivots and much of my social life grinding to a halt, I have had opportunities not just to worry about my amount of drinking (which I’m not going to dive into here) but also to consider my preferences and priorities and why I am so drawn to certain flavor profiles.
Specifically: Why am I so attracted to Manhattans? The Manhattan has never received as much pop culture play as its cousin the Martini, despite its possibly longer lineage (many suggest that it originated at the Manhattan Club in New York City in the mid-1870s). There is no James Bond Manhattan, no debate over gin versus vodka, and no fruity version called a Cosmopolitan, drunk by women pretending that a job as a weekly columnist can afford them a one-bedroom apartment in the West Village. There was nothing in the ether telling me to drink Manhattans, so how did it become my go-to drink?
I didn’t always drink my Manhattans in carefully poured measurements from top-shelf bottles. When I first moved to New York, in the late ’90s, I would walk sixteen blocks to a bar called Great Lakes to meet my friends in Park Slope, years before that neighborhood had a hipster bar on every block. I would find my stool and pile my quarters on the bar for the one drink I could afford each week on my $25,000 yearly salary as an art-school administrative assistant.
After carefully deliberating how to spend my precious coin, I decided upon a Manhattan, which bartender Jodi served with generous pours of well vermouth and Maker’s bourbon. That relatively sweet version of the classic Manhattan became the flavor profile to accompany my formative years of young love, late-night pizza slices, and existential crises (mine and others’). But my allegiance to the Manhattan didn’t begin on my Great Lakes barstool.
It began twenty-five years ago. I was in college and just beginning to try alcohol. I had always been, and still was, a nerd with nerd friends, a straight-A student with little interest in intoxicating substances. Earlier, in high school, my classmates and I would spend our evenings huddled over our calculus homework together, feeling the pressure to do well on our standardized tests and get into competitive institutions of higher education. I didn’t have time for drinking—and anyway it wasn’t super appealing after watching what the consumption of beer and wine did to my father every single evening in our dark and often depressing home. (Though who is to say that he wasn’t understandably self-medicating, and that I, like many parents of young kids, am now doing the same?)
When financial constraints put me in the local state university despite my acceptance to top-tier programs along the East Coast, I rebelled by switching my major from physics to my longtime love: art. I hung out in the sculpture and painting studios, and I hosted a show on the college radio station. I drove to all-night clubs in Washington, DC, and I went to house parties, where I would drink mostly Boone’s wine, but only enough so that I could remain the designated driver.
Those college days opened opportunities for me to perform as well, and, despite my merely peripheral relationship to the theater department, I somehow found myself cast as the lead in a graduate student’s directorial thesis project. The play was called And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little . I played Catherine Reardon, an alcoholic who mixes herself Manhattans throughout every act, while covertly eating raw ground beef hidden in a box of Valentine chocolates (don’t ask me to explain such an unusual character trait, for college theater is . . . college theater).
That relatively sweet version of the classic Manhattan became the flavor profile to accompany my formative years of young love, late-night pizza slices, and existential crises (mine and others’).
The “raw meat” was pasta disguised with red food dye, and the “Manhattan” ingredients were bottles of water and cold tea, which I would repeatedly mix and pour into my glass onstage, tossing back gulp after gulp, from curtain up to curtain down.
A Manhattan is a well-constructed drink. It’s basically several ounces of ninety-proof booze in an iconic glass (think of a tree, but you’re holding on to the trunk, and the branches are full of liquor), making you look sophisticated and classy while you get drunk fast. My stage recipe was whiskey and sweet vermouth and that’s it. A classic Manhattan doesn’t need much more—maybe a dash of bitters, maybe a cherry—so when you are a character whose body has gotten used to a lot of alcohol served up fast and easy, a Manhattan is a perfect choice: You can get away with mixing up a bare-bones version of one super quick before anyone is wondering where you’ve wandered off to.
I perfected my Manhattan recipe with fake ingredients in front of an audience of dozens of people for five nights straight. The people loved me. It was then, I think, that my love of the Manhattan was born. And so when I graduated from my suburban university and migrated to New York City, the city of my artist longings, I wanted to try a real Manhattan with real ingredients. It felt more sophisticated than the Coors Light and red table wine that filled my childhood home.
Eventually, I grew tired of rationing my laundry quarters to afford my weekly drink at Great Lakes alongside my daily meal of Goya rice and beans. I cast my fishing rod of career hopefulness and left that $25,000-a-year job for better-paying work and bartending school (in Manhattan!). My program at Authentic Bartending School (yes, really) took place on the fifth floor of a nondescript building in Koreatown. Five nights a week for two weeks, I trained behind a fake bar—again pouring dyed water, this time over plastic ice cubes, and performing a role to pass my class. I was itching for the real thing, for high-proof bottles and ice cubes that melted in the glass.
Soon enough, I became my own version of Jodi and found myself behind the bar of a local pub for about six years, pouring my patrons all manner of vodka drinks and margaritas and bad decisions. I can’t recall a single order for a Manhattan. Perhaps this is because a Manhattan is traditionally served up in a triangular glass perched on a stem, requiring a certain measured slowness when picking up the drink and bringing it to one’s lips. It is designed for careful sips and meaningful conversations, and maybe a thoughtful tapping of your cigar into a nearby ashtray, if that’s your kind of thing. In my bar, people wanted drinks that they could hold in one hand while throwing a dart with the other, or a pint glass or Long Island Iced Tea that they could messily cheers together as they told the same stories, night after night. It was my job to reign in chaos, and chaos doesn’t drink Manhattans.
I thought very little of Manhattans in those days, though whiskey remained a good friend. Over the course of most nights, I inhaled at least five shots of Jameson as fuel, numbing my young muscles as I hauled buckets of ice from the basement, unclogged toilets, and chased nonpaying customers out the door. I visited bars on my nights off that specialized in Scotch, which is its own class of whiskey—these bars were full of patrons who seemed to have something to prove, such as: Who had a harder day at the office? Who was up for a promotion? Who had the most refined opinions about the perfect level of peat in a single malt flavor profile? Scotch drinkers can be even more opinionated than wine connoisseurs. I was definitely in a time of life where I felt I had something to prove. But the Manhattan, unchanged since its nineteenth-century origins, has nothing to prove.
On my nights off, I visited friends’ bars, and I rarely ordered a Manhattan. I would do rounds of shots to show my strength, my stamina, my tolerance. I was in my twenties and was still defining myself in large part by the preferences of others. I was putting up shields, maintaining the appearance of toughness in an industry where my colleagues hooked up with one another and bar patrons on the regular, in locations where it wasn’t uncommon for me to find a baggie of coke that someone had sloppily left behind after a shift. Somewhere inside, I was still that nerdy straight-A student, feeling like I’d slipped into the room with the cool kids. I wasn’t going to have a drink that no one else was having, to risk standing out and being caught as the interloper I feared I was. But a signature drink is like an old friend, like someone you cannot see for years and then run into for an evening and find no shortage of things to talk about.
I was in and out of several long-term relationships (with human men, not with alcoholic beverages) over my twenties and thirties, but it was not until I met and married my husband Karl that I started making Manhattans at home on a regular basis, returning to the first cocktail I ever loved, refining my recipe. Karl is a person with his own strong flavor preferences in his drinks, and to balance our relationship, my own whiskey-based identity needed to assert itself.
My husband prided himself in learning new recipes from bartenders in the speakeasy-style bars of New York, which were all the rage at the time we met. He was loyal to gin, which is so widely used in classic drinks far beyond the Martini. Vanguard bars like Milk and Honey, Little Branch, and other establishments founded or inspired by the late and supremely influential Sasha Petrosky were serving up a variety of concoctions both classic and new, with a range of base spirits. But whenever we placed our order, Karl would lean toward gin-based drinks, and I toward bourbon and rye (of course, both are types of whiskey). There were hits and misses, and it made me remember that there was one whiskey-based beverage that had never done me wrong.
Karl and I had one kid, and then two, and it was my first time living in a home with children since I was one myself. The pandemic hit, and our home bar became a nightly ritual. After a long day of homeschooling and working in distracted fifteen-minute snippets and wiping down all of our groceries with disinfectant, we would turn to the bottles on our shelves. Making exact pours, chilling our glasses, and sitting in relative silence with one another as the children slept in their beds—this was our meditation and our medication. I may drink, as my father did, but I distinguish my parental nightcap from the beer and wine I grew up around by turning to my old friend. Two years and change of a pandemic put the Manhattan solidly back into my roster.
A signature drink is like an old friend, like someone you cannot see for years and then run into for an evening and find no shortage of things to talk about.
And so it happened that I was traveling through northern Minnesota with my husband and two children this summer, on the aforementioned family road trip that we undertook largely for the purpose of avoiding the costs of New York summer camp. We sat down for dinner at a bar and grill in a town called Hibbing, and my eyes went immediately to one item on the menu: the Minnesota Maple Manhattan—a twist on the classic that included a bacon garnish. I ordered it, of course, in the full context of all that drink has meant to me: its history and my history and memories of key moments in my young adult life.
I took a sip of that Manhattan in Hibbing, which was, frankly, mediocre except for the interest of the bacon garnish. It left strange greasy swirls on the surface of the beverage, but I appreciated the ingenuity. It turns out that even subpar versions of meaningful drinks can key into formative moments of our psyche and take us to places of comfort. I was traveling, I was not home, I was out of my element. My Minnesota Maple Manhattan was in a similar predicament—far from the Manhattan’s supposed origin of New York City, doing its best to put on a show.
I drank that Manhattan around its greasy bacon garnish, happy to see an old friend.
Back in my own kitchen, post–road trip, I am in a familiar space, and so is my Manhattan, my Sazerac–Antica Formula–Angostura–Luxardo Manhattan, of which only a sip now remains. I toss back the cherry, and I’m glad to be home.