Who Drinks a Perfect Manhattan?
The Order Has Its Devotees. But They Are Few and Far Between.
The other week, shortly after The Mix published the 2023 edition of “The New York 50,” I got an inquiry from a subscriber. The list was great, they said, but among the fifty cocktails singled out there wasn’t one Perfect Manhattan. What bar in New York, they wanted to know, serves the best Perfect Manhattan?
I had to admit I had no idea. In my many years of drinking in Gotham, I don’t think I’ve ever ordered a Perfect Manhattan—the name given to a Manhattan cocktail variation that splits the vermouth portion between sweet and dry. Nor have I ever seen one featured on a menu or heard tell of a bar that specializes in the drink the way some bars feature their Martini or Negroni.
So, I asked around. But, who to ask? I could think of only one person I knew who regularly ordered Perfect Manhattans: my New York Times colleague and New York food-world legend, Florence Fabricant. I had heard her speak several times of her fondness for the drink. At those times, I made a mental note, because I’d never met anyone else who had made that their regular cocktail.
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Florence didn’t have good news. In New York, the Perfect Manhattan well has gone a bit dry of late. "‘The best’ might be pushing it,” she wrote me via email, “but for a very good one I would have said ‘21’ alas! Or Nomad, also alas! But Sidecar (upstairs at P.J. Clarke's on Third Avenue) or Patroon.”
Fabricant is very particular in her order. She specifies her Perfect Manhattan be made with rye, as opposed to Bourbon. If all the bar has is cheap, dyed maraschino cherries, she requests a lemon twist. Finally, she prefers the drink during the chilly months.
“It’s for cold weather; Martinis are for warm,” she said. “And one last thing I like about both cocktails is that you can’t drink them fast—at least I can’t.”
I passed this information on to the subscriber, who happened to be Deborah Berke, the vaunted architect and Dean of the Yale School of Architecture. Berke became the second person I knew who preferred Perfect Manhattans. I asked her why she liked them over regular Manhattans.
“Why do I like it?,” she wrote in an email. “A number of reasons—my father was a bourbon drinker so I associate bourbon and brown liquor with him in the best possible way. He only had a drink on Friday and Saturday evenings, and he cherished and nursed his bourbon. Second, my many happy years working with Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, of the Brown Forman family, on the designs of the 21c Museum Hotels and enjoying good Kentucky bourbon with them. And third, and most importantly, I really like the taste of a perfect Manhattan—smooth, with a bite balanced by sweetness, but not too sweet. These days I switch off between bourbon ones and rye ones (my dad also liked his rye whiskey) depending on my mood.”
This got me thinking. I now knew two Perfect Manhattan drinkers. Were there others, hiding in plain sight? I took to Facebook and polled bar owners and bartenders. Did they often get calls for the cocktails? The replies went like this: “Rarely”; “Nope”; “Not very often”; “Never”; “Maybe once a year”; “Maybe 1 in every 200”; “4-5 times in 12 years”; “I could count on one hand for maybe all time.”
So, Perfect Manhattan drinkers are relative unicorns in the bar world. And, yet, they are out there and they are stubborn. Bartender Mimi Burnham wrote of a guest who ordered Perfect Manhattans and was so “jaded” by his experiences that he had the recipe printed on a card, which he would hand to any uncomprehending bartender.
Jaded, yes, but not defeated! And not budging an inch, either.
The Perfect Manhattan is not a new cocktail—it goes back to the 19th century—but its name is younger than the drink. The Manhattan—like its brother in booze, the Martini—wore many faces before Prohibition. Typically the variations went by the handles “sweet,” “medium” and “dry.” The Sweet Manhattan was the one we know today, with two parts whiskey and one part sweet vermouth. (Sometimes, additional sugar was added.) The Dry Manhattan used dry vermouth instead of sweet. The Medium Manhattan was the original Perfect Manhattan, made with four parts whiskey and one part each dry and sweet vermouth.
But nobody orders a “Medium Manhattan” today; they order Perfect Manhattans. The “Perfect” moniker seems to have been borrowed from another drink from the early 20th century, actually called the Perfect Cocktail. This was a gin drink with equal parts sweet and dry vermouth. In other words, a Perfect Martini, but they just called the drink plain “Perfect.” Somewhere along the line, “Perfect” came to mean not that particular cocktail, but any cocktail that employed both sweet and dry vermouth.
By the 1950s-’60s, the name Perfect Manhattan had settled in, while Medium Manhattans were heard of no more, and everyone completely forgot about the Perfect Cocktail. It was that generation that grew up with and ordered the Perfect Manhattan. This explains why, even today, the Perfect Manhattan drinker at a bar tends to be a mature customer.
My Facebook poll let me know that I had actually met two other Perfect Manhattan fans, but didn’t know it. These were Drs. Carlotta and David Schuster, the parents of noted cocktail writer Amanda Schuster. Intrigued, I asked Amanda how here parents came to be Perfect Manhattan people.
“So my folks started ordering Perfect Manhattans some time around 2009 at the height of the ‘Mad Men’ era,” she wrote in an email. “I didn’t even know what that was when I heard my dad ordering it. That became the ‘Schuster order’ at places like Bar Centrale, and Joe Allen down below. My folks are massive theater goers, so that’s their thing. They say they prefer that variation because it’s drier.”
That the drink is drier than a regular Manhattan does seem to be a motivating factor among those who like this cocktail. I personally have never found Manhattans overly sweet. That said, I do admit to having a slight sweet tooth when it comes to cocktails. (Otherwise, I do not have a sweet tooth at all. I almost never order dessert.)
So, back to the original question. Where in New York can one get the best version of a Perfect Manhattan cocktail? Fabricant may have been right when she said it used to be the “21” Club. In 2014, another Times writer, Steve Reddicliffe (editor of The New York Times Essential Book of Cocktails), said the restaurant served a good rendition. And, in my Facebook poll, former “21” Club bartender Tara Wright said she had often served the drink to regulars. (The Times, in general, seems to like the Perfect Manhattan. Over the years, the drink has been lauded in articles by Times drink writers Jonathan Miles, Frank Bruni and Rosie Schaap.)
But “21” is now, sadly, closed, and unlikely to reopen. What about that Sidecar that Fabricant had mentioned? Sidecar is a fancier, second-floor addition to the classic Third Avenue saloon P.J. Clarke’s. I’ve never been, because I never saw the reason to go to another nearby bar when P.J. Clarke’s was right there in front of me. But I looked at the online menu and, sure enough, there was a Perfect Manhattan, prominently featured.
But Sidecar is a quasi-private bar. So the mantle of Best Perfect Manhattan in New York is still up for grabs. Any bar out there want to meet this challenge? You will net at least four devoted customers.
While most Perfect Manhattan drinkers prefer the cocktail for its dry quality, I personally find it too dry. So, when I make one, I opt for bourbon and a cherry garnish to lend the drink is tad more sweetness.
2 ounces bourbon or rye
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1/2 ounce dry vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass half-filled with ice. Stir until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a cherry or lemon twist.
Not So Perfect Manhattan
2 ounces Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon
1 ounces Italian Sweet Vermouth
1/2 ounce French Dry Vermouth
2 dashes orange bitters
Add all ingredients to mixing glass. Add ice and stir well. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Orange twist expressed, then discarded. Brandied cherry, for garnish.
Odd and Ends…
Followers of this newsletter will recall that I wasn’t able to include the Insanely Good Midori Sour from Up & Up on my recent “New York 50” because there was a Midori shortage and the bar temporarily could not serve the drink. Well, good news! The cocktail is back on the menu! So, consider it back on the New York 50 lists (which is now apparently the New York 51)… Expresso Martini Day is March 15. Which is just too perfect… The lovely house Martini at the restaurant Kolomon, is dubbed Le Soiree. Made of gin, vermouth, gentian and rowanberry eau de vie, it is highly recommended… Dante in Manhattan is hosting bartenders Tommaso Mansi + Luigi Gallo of Belmond Caruso hotel in Ravello from March 6 to 8. The next guest appearance will be Alexander Frezza of L'Antiquario in Naples (March 13-15), whom Mary Kate and I had the great pleasure of visiting at his bar last May… Emma Janzen was recently at the bar De La O Cantina in Guadalajara, where she spotted an entire section of the menu inspired by Brooklyn bartender Phil Ward… At The Road House, the old Italian restaurant in Staten Island, the owner Anthony d' Andrea, is called “Tony Meatball” by the regulars. No wonder. The house meatballs may be among to best I’ve ever had.
I love 🍒the sweet and like the perfect, still working on appreciating the dry!!
First of all, I love this newletter. Secondly, perfect rye Manhattans have been my drink for years. A wonderfully balanced drink.