Decline and Fall of the Manhattan

Plotting our namesake cocktail’s legacy.

“In all cases, children [in myth] who are said to be twins…will have different adventures later on which will, if I may say so, untwin them.”

—Claude Lévi-Strauss, Myth and Meaning

Throughout much of the history of the American cocktail, two drinks have reigned over all others: the Martini and the Manhattan.

But like the mythical twins Romulus and Remus, they were fated to drift apart, and eventually collide—and only one could be king.

In 1885, the Austrian actor Adolf Sonnenthal, a sensation in Europe, was touring the United States for the first time, and newspapers across the country followed the thespian’s American adventures. According to the Chicago Daily, Sonnenthal was very interested in a uniquely American invention, “the fame of which had reached him in Vienna.” That invention? The Manhattan cocktail. To many foreign visitors during that era, American cocktails
represented everything that fascinated them about American urban society during the Gilded Age: ingenuity, creativity, self-indulgent excess and a swaggering disregard for convention. And the Manhattan was king of cocktails—one of the most popular, if not the most popular cocktail nationwide. Sonnenthal was not disappointed.
When he returned to Austria, he took the recipe with him, “declaring,” reported the Daily, “that the Viennese would not believe so delicious a drink could be made unless they had tasted it. Thus it is that the American barroom gradually subjugates and civilizes the semi-barbarians of the Old World.”

Sonnenthal may have done his research at one of the opulent hotel bars at the center of New York’s cocktail society, like the Hoffman House, often said to be the birthplace of the Manhattan— it’s not true, but it’s often said.1 If Sonnenthal had ordered two drinks from that bar’s white-jacketed, mustachioed bartender— a Manhattan and a Martini (or a Martinez, as it was sometimes called back in those days)—the two drinks placed on the bar would have been hard to tell apart. We all know now that the Manhattan takes a cherry and the Martini an olive or three, but back in 1885 there was no such orthodoxy—you could find Manhattans with olives, Martinis with cherries, and both with lemon peel. As for what else was in the glass, early recipes for the Manhattan call for a dash of this or that—gum syrup, curaçao, bitters, maraschino liqueur, even absinthe—but its core has always been that rock-solid foundation of grape and grain: whiskey and red sweet vermouth.

Like the Manhattan, the early Martini was sometimes made with dashes of curaçao and bitters, but always with gin and vermouth. But the gin used back then was often Holland gin, which has a malty flavor that reminds some of whiskey. And it took a long while for dry vermouth to become standard—that Martini at the Hoffman House could well have had the rosy glow of sweet vermouth. In 1885 the Manhattan was already destined for greatness.
Its primary ingredients—whiskey and sweet vermouth— combine so seamlessly and harmoniously that their intermingling seems predestined. The Martini was still a pale imitation of its older brother.

From that moment in 1885, the Manhattan left to conquer the world and it became an international sensation. Years after Herr Sonnenthal tasted his “veritable Yankee nectar,” the Maharajah of Kapurthala (the raffish Indian prince who would later shock society types on two continents by marrying flamenco dancer Anita Delgado) was introduced to the “seductive Manhattan” during a bar crawl of New York’s music halls and roof gardens in 1893. According to one account in the Columbus Daily Enquirer, the cocktail “exhilarated the royal senses of the East Indian potentate to such a degree that…he ordered one of his attendants to go back and get instructions just how the beverage was made.” A few months before The Red Badge of Courage was published in 1895, a young Stephen Crane was filing newspaper articles from Mexico, and had this comforting advice for tourists traveling to Mexico City: “And to those gentlemen from the States whose minds have a sort of liquid quality, it is necessary merely to say that if you go out into the street and yell: ‘Gimme a Manhattan!’ about 40 American bartenders will appear of a sudden and say, ‘Yes, sir.'” In the meantime, the Martini grew up and started to look more like itself; bartenders took to making Martinis with dry vermouth, and the drink’s popularity grew. “The Manhattan cocktail was once almost the national drink,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 1893. “It is still the standard in the cocktail line, but the Martini, which has been growing in favor from year to year, is now almost as much called for in this city as the Manhattan.”

The brotherly cocktails ruled together into the 20th century, but the good times couldn’t last; trouble came to their kingdom in 1919 when the Volstead Act was passed and Prohibition began. Cocktails and their creators were forced to seek asylum on foreign shores, but never were refugees more welcome. American expats found homes behind now-legendary bars like the New York Bar in Paris and the Savoy in London, and the Manhattan became our king across the water, awaiting his restoration. Meanwhile, there were pretenders to the throne, as one Chicago Tribune writer noted during the dark years: “One of the saddest sights in gay Gotham is a Manhattan cocktail, 1923 stream line model, strutting its native heath.” At a temperance saloon, the writer had been served a nonalcoholic Manhattan—”a nauseating draft, a melancholy, depressing drink that smells like the back room of an apothecary’s shop.”

In 1933, Prohibition ended and Manhattan and Martini returned to American shores, but the balance of power was starting to shift. When a pocket recipe book called Burke’s Complete Cocktail & Drinking Recipes listed “the most popular conventional drinks in the Western world” in 1934, the Martini was number one, the Manhattan two. I don’t need to explain what happened next to the Martini; its story has been immortalized in poetry, prose, film and song. It changed dramatically, and left its brother Manhattan far behind. Bartenders started making it with less and less vermouth—by the time Stalin and FDR were sharing Martinis at Yalta, vermouth had all but disappeared from the equation. Then gin started to disappear too. In the crystal-clear surface of the new vodka Martini, American drinkers of the 1960s saw their reflections—and they expressed themselves in the way they ordered their drinks (dry, very dry, extra dry, with three olives or a twist or an onion, etc.). Then in the 1980s, it became trendy to call anything in a cocktail glass a Martini. Order a French Martini today and you’ll get a purple, frothy thing made with pineapple juice, vodka and raspberry liqueur—a long, long way from that
pale little drink in the Hoffman House. The Martini became malleable, protean; it was whatever anyone wanted it to be, and so became the most popular and famous cocktail of all time.

The Manhattan didn’t change, rather it became more set in its ways. In the 19th century, there were dozens of legitimate recipes for the Manhattan; now, there’s really only one. It’s not cool, clean, dry and clear, like most Martinis. It’s dark, a little sweet, strong, spicy, bitter and pungent. It may never be trendy again—it’s got way too much flavor for that—but it’s got a gutsy, good-enoughfor- Grandpa appeal. And it can be made with ingredients found at almost any bar, anywhere in the world, or at home—just follow
the recipe below, or bring the recipe to your local bartender and ask him to play along. Startlingly few bartenders make our namesake well—common pitfalls are the omission of bitters, a surfeit of vermouth, and the shakes. Stir it for a while, until it can’t get colder, then drink it, remembering the days when the Manhattan was king.

The Original Manhattan Cocktail

This recipe was recorded by food writer James Villas in his 1988 book Villas at Table, but very similar recipes appear in countless cocktail books from the 19th century to present day, and this ratio is now considered standard. Villas enjoys a Manhattan before virtually every dinner, and believes that this “mellow prince of cocktails,” represents “the height of the mixologist’s art.”

2 oz. rye (blended American) or bourbon whiskey
1 oz. sweet Italian vermouth
dash of Angostura bitters
a stemmed maraschino cherry

Combine the whiskey, vermouth and bitters in a mixing glass or pitcher, add 2 or 3 ice cubes, stir quickly till well chilled, and strain into a 4-ounce stemmed cocktail glass. Add the cherry.

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St. John Frizell writes about the liquored life for Bon Appétit, Saveur, and other magazines such as this one, and runs a café-bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, called Fort Defiance. When not writing or bartending, he haunts the pubs around Port Authority, carrying a shoebox.