Grape & Grain

Disputed origins of the Manhattan cocktail, and the Hong Kong bar that gives it a new twist

Drink that combines whiskey, vermouth and bitters is one of the longest established cocktails, but that didn’t stop a Wan Chai bar giving it a contemporary twist

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 February, 2017, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 02 March, 2017, 5:38pm

In David Embury’s influential 1948 cocktail manual, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, the Manhattan is listed as one of the six “basic cocktails”, along with the daiquiri, Jack Rose, martini, old fashioned and the sidecar.

It is certainly one of the longest established cocktails, although exactly when it was first mixed remains a mystery.

For years, popular lore had it that it was created in 1874 for a party at the Manhattan Club, arranged for the new governor of New York, Samuel Tilden, who was the Democratic candidate for the US presidency in 1876.

The result of that election, as in the recent case of Trump vs Clinton, was determined by the electoral college, which gave the presidency to Rutherford Hayes, although Tilden won the popular vote.

Cocktail historian William Grimes has looked into that theory of the drink’s origin, however, and concluded that the story is untrue. The club’s records show that the drink was invented there but give no date, and in his book Straight Up or On rhe Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail, Grimes quotes one contemporary source as crediting the recipe to a Broadway saloon keeper surnamed Black.

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What is known for sure is that vermouth, one of the three ingredients, along with rye whiskey and angostura bitters, was fashionable in America during the last quarter or so of the 19th century, and it is perfectly possible that more than one bartender came up with more or less the same formula at roughly the same time.

Proportions and ingredients have varied over the years. The Manhattan Club’s records indicate that early versions of the drink served there were made with approximately equal amounts of spirit and vermouth, but by the early 20th century the spirit component was dominant.

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During prohibition, when American rye whiskey was hard to obtain, Canadian spirits were substituted, and later bartenders also began to substitute bourbon.

By 1930, when The Savoy Cocktail Book was published, the hotel’s famous American Bar was serving four versions of the drink – Manhattan Cocktail No 1, Manhattan Cocktail No 2, Manhattan Cocktail Sweet and Manhattan Cocktail Dry. No 1 called for rye, No 2 for Canadian Club, and the Sweet and Dry for different vermouths.

The most common modern variations using whisk(e)y are the Dry Manhattan, made with dry vermouth; the Perfect Manhattan made with sweet and dry vermouths and closely related to The Savoy’s Manhattan Cocktail Dry; and the Rob Roy made with Scottish whisky. There are also variations which combine vermouth and bitters with other spirits, including brandy, rum and tequila.

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Part of the appeal of the Manhattan, like that of the dry martini, is that small adjustments to a recipe can make a big difference to the drink – there are almost endless possibilities for subtle variations.

WTF – the initials stand for Worth the Fuss – is a new bar in Morrison Hill Road, Wan Chai. It has an excellent Manhattan on its classics list, and bartender Eddy Lim’s variation on the theme, called the Rumhattan, on a section of the menu headed Innovations.

“We stir our Manhattans with ice, using 50ml of Jim Beam Rye, 25ml of Mancino Rosso, and a few drops of Angostura Bitters,” Lim says.

The drink is garnished with orange peel which has been rubbed around the rim and sides of the glass, and squeezed over it to release the oils.

Manhattans have been made shaken or stirred for as long as the cocktail has been in existence, but conservative opinion is on the side of stirring. Lim discourages shaking them because he believes it dilutes the drink too much.

“The Rumhattan is one of our signatures. At Worth the Fuss we replaced the rye whiskey with Sailor Jerry spiced rum, the Angostura bitters with orange bitters, and added cherry liqueur and Monin cinnamon syrup just so there’s a hint of cinnamon. It’s smooth, sweet and bitter,” he says.

“It’s quite popular, although the Purple Haze, which is my creation, and the Bloody Mary are the most popular orders.”

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Lim’s Rumhattan differs from a regular Cuban Manhattan, also made with dark rum, in that it uses only sweet vermouth and not a combination of sweet and dry.

Other twists on the recipe include the substitution of Peychaud’s bitters for Angostura or orange, or even using all three, but bitters of some sort are generally regarded as essential.

A decent Manhattan should be within the repertoire of most competent bartenders, but among the town’s best can be found at Stockton, Butler, and The Angel’s Share which offers a Six Months Barrel Aged Manhattan matured “for extra smoothness and texture” in a small barrel previously used to mature bourbon.

Four Hong Kong bars worth the trip for a Manhattan

WTF, 10 Morrison Hill Road, Wan Chai, tel: 2792 0823

Stockton, 32 Wyndham Street, Central, tel: 2565 5268

Butler TST, 5/F-6/F Mody House, 30 Mody Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, tel: 2724 3828

Angel’s Share,
2/F, Amber Lodge
23 Hollywood Road,
Central, tel: 2805 8388