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Historical Cocktails - The Manhattan

Updated: Mar 29



We've long know that cocktails are definitively an American export & many hotels all over Europe back in the day had an 'American Bar' with one of the most famous of these bars located in The Savoy hotel in London. One of the most interesting parts of this export are a few classic drinks that have made it into the library of any self respecting bartender. These drinks are named after the five boroughs of New York City & are as such - The Bronx, The Manhattan, The Brooklyn, Queens & the Staten Island. Not all are equal & not all are delicious but let's dive into these classic cocktails & give our own take on it. Starting with the Manhattan!

The Manhattan

The origins of this peculiar are shrouded in mystery but never-the-less it is said that facts should never get in the way of a good story! So the origins of the Manhattan cocktail according to 'ForknPlate' are... Short answer: no ones really knows.

Long answer: there are currently two main origin stories for the Manhattan. First is that it was invented at New York City’s Manhattan Club in the 1870’s. The story goes that Jennie Jerome, aka Lady Randolph Churchill, aka Mommie Dearest to good ol’ Winston, was hosting a party there in honor of Samuel J. Tilden, presidential candidate at the time.  Apparently a guest at the party, Dr. Iain Marshall, started whipping up drinks for the other guests at the party, and it was a hit. It was so popular that, even after the party, people began to request the drink, referring to it by the name of the club where it originated.

This story, while fun and satisfying, in that it’s easy to nail down a specific origin date, is likely false, as Lady Randolph was, by many accounts, in Europe and pregnant at the time the party was to have taken place.

The more likely to be true version of events comes from William F. Mulhall, a bartender who worked at the famed Hoffman House for over 30 years. In a story he wrote in the 1880s, he mentions, “The Manhattan cocktail was invented by a man named Black, who kept a place ten doors below Houston Street on Broadway in the 1860s.” He also claims that it was “probably the most famous drink in the world in its time.” This story, while more plausible than the first, is not without issues. Namely, if Mr. Black popularized the drink the world-over in the 1860s, it’s surprising we have no mention of it until the 1880s.

According to Diffordsguide.com there is a 3rd interesting story involved also that involves a Col. Joe Walker on a yachting trip in New York. This last story is the most recent I have come across and is courtesy of Barry Popik's barrypopik.com where Barry notes an entry in the Daily Journal, Racine, Wisconsin, 8 March 1899. The article purports that Col. Joe Walker ran the then-famous Crescent Hall Saloon in New Orleans, at the corner of Canal and St. Charles Streets and that some years before he went on a little yachting trip with a party of friends while in New York.

"By some oversight the liquid refreshments in the icebox were confined to Italian vermouth and plain whisky, and it occurred to the colonel that a palatable drink might be made by mixing the two. The results were so good that he experimented a little on his return to New Orleans, and soon perfected the Manhattan cocktail, as it is known today. It was christened in honor of his friends on Manhattan Island, and the fame of the decoction soon spread all over the country. The true Manhattan cocktail is always made with Italian vermouth, but at half the places where they undertake to serve them, French [dry] vermouth is substituted, and the fine flavor is altogether destroyed. French vermouth is a sort of wine, while Italian vermouth is a cordial, pure and simple. They are as different as milk and molasses. A cocktail made from the French brand is no more a Manhattan cocktail than it is a Spanish omelette."[sic]

Whatever the origin's may be of the Manhattan cocktail there's additional interesting information that surrounds the drink including some more drama about how the cocktail came into prominence. Bloomberg has researched that... In The Stork Club Bar Book, the bon vivant Lucius Beebe described the Manhattan as “the archetypal short mixed drink” of its age: “Because of its unrivaled tonic qualities as a restorative and element for firming the moral fiber, as well as because of the prevailing American taste for drinks with whisky bases at this time, the classic and standard Manhattan Cocktail … was an almost universal rite until the end of the nineteenth century.” The leading practitioner of the ritual—the only famous person who is also famous for drinking Manhattans—was J. Pierpont Morgan. The banker and U.S. Steel founder took his daily after-work drink at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, as did all the thirsty young men who aspired to his throne. According to The Old Waldorf-Astoria Bar Book (1935), every night from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.,

The recipe is as such: Manhattan

2 oz. rye whiskey 1 oz. sweet vermouth 2 dashes Angostura bitters 1 dash orange bitters Lemon peel  Garnish: Two good cherries.

Stir well with good ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Twist and discard lemon peel. Garnish and serve.

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