Jerry Thomas Manhattan

My friend Erik posted a brief tweet in his Twitter feed the other day that said this:

GeorgeTStagg’06 + JerryThomas’ManhattanRecipe = Holy Crap!

An exclamation point suddenly appeared over my head, encased in a thought balloon. Sometimes ya gotta love Twitter.

The Manhattan Cocktail was invented sometime in the 1860s, with conflicting stories as to its origin, as is the usual case with classic cocktails of its age. One reliable source, quoted by Dave Wondrich in his superb tome Imbibe!, was William F. Mulhall, who was a bartender at New York’s Hoffman House from 1882 until 1915. He said that “[t]he Manhattan Cocktail was invented by a man named Black, who kept a place ten doors down below Houston Street on Broadway in the [eighteen-]sixties.” There’s also evidence to think it was created at New York’s Manhattan Club as well, although the stories of it being created for a banquet thrown by Winston Churchill’s mother, enduring as they are, were disproven by a little simple math with the dates. Professor Jerry Thomas included it in one of the later editions of his pioneering bar guide, and his version is quite a bit different from what we’re used to today.

The main difference is that the proportions are reversed — this old version calls for twice as much vermouth as whiskey. There are a few reasons for this: Dave talks in his book about the Vermouth Cocktail being fine and dandy, at least you’ve got a drink in your hand, but it lacks a certain kick the many members of The Sporting Life demanded. However, a pure whiskey cocktail, consisting primarily of spirit, didn’t allow the consumption of too many before you were likely to be whacking your chin on the end of the bar as you were on your way down to the floor. Ah, but the mixture of whiskey or other spirit with the wildly popular new vermouth that was coming in from Europe … now there’s a drink where you can knock back a few, know you’re doing it and last a bit longer on your feet! On top of that, the interplay between the flavors of the spirit and the spiced wine created a whole new universe of flavor.

Also, back in the day, a lot of whiskey tended to be stronger than what we typically get today; Old Potrero’s 18th Century Style Whiskey is a modern example of what many of those old whiskies were like. I’ve never tried making a Jerry Thomas Manhattan using an 86-proof whiskey, but I don’t think it would be all that well balanced; I probably should try it, actually, just to see.

Old Potrero would be a good idea for this cocktail, as would the lovely Thomas Handy Sazerac Rye, which is fantastic stuff and comes in at 132 proof. But the stuff Erik suggested was really exciting — the 2006 release of George T. Stagg Bourbon, aged for 16 years and bottled at barrel strength, came in at a whopping 144 proof. That’s 72% alcohol for the math-impaired, and what the Buffalo Trace distillery calls one of their “Haz-Mat” releases. It’s actually illegal to transport this stuff on a plane yourself; you can bring up to 5 bottles of booze in your checked luggage, but only if it’s below 140 proof.

After seeing Erik’s tweet, I made two as soon as I got home.

The key to this drink, besides Erik’s excellent suggestion of a super-powerful and flavorful whiskey, is to use a really spicy, flavorful vermouth as well. Top choice would be the incredible Carpano Antica Formula, followed by Punt E Mes or Vya. If you have one of the other releases of Stagg that should work well too, as will the Thomas Handy rye or Old Potrero 18th Century.

“Reverse” Manhattan Cocktail
(Professor Jerry Thomas’ 1887 version of the Manhattan
modern variation by Erik Ellestad)

2 ounces sweet vermouth (Carpano or the like).
1 ounce George T. Stagg Bourbon ’06.
3 dashes bitters (Fee’s Whiskey Barrel Aged Bitters, Angostura or Abbott’s if you’ve got ‘em).
2 dashes maraschino liqueur.

Stir with ice and strain into a claret glass, then garnish with a quarter lemon slice if you’re doing Jerry’s presentation. I used a standard cocktail glass and a Luxardo cherry.

Our reaction … HOLY CRAP!

Thanks for the suggestion, Erik!