If you're into thinkin' and drinkin'

Episode 1: Manhattan Project – Manhattan


We’re kicking off the series with the cocktail that I think of as THE cocktail of cocktails…the Manhattan.

At the front of the show, Mr. Jason Kruse, our researcher, and I sat and discussed what he discovered while tracking down the origins of the Manhattan. First of all, the Manhattan’s claim to fame as the longest unchanged cocktail stands up to the available information. The first version we found is, in fact, the same version served today. Though it has been played with and changed by various bartenders over the years, particularly in its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (and there are A LOT of variations on this drink), none of those versions stuck as the standard.

The most popular year of origin is 1874.  This does not align with what we discovered as the first written recipe for the Manhattan which occurs in 1884.  1874 is not definitively wrong, but there is no evidence for its existence at that time, though, like any trade at the time, the culture and tradition was often passed down through word of mouth, so the Manhattan could have traveled unverified for some time.  The problem with the 1874 date, however, is that it is often attributed with a specific event that launched Samuel J. Tilden’s political career which was supposedly attended by Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s mother, where she so christened the drink Manhattan. Reliable sources, however, place her in England at the time preparing to give birth to Winston.  So it is decidedly not 1874 for that reason, though possibly 1874 for other reasons.

We think it is also noteworthy that the Manhattan does not appear in Jerry Thomas’ book in 1864.  His cocktail recipe book was the very first of its kind and featured the growing collection of drinks to be had in American bars at the time.  It is not definitive evidence that the Manhattan wasn’t first made before that time, but rather a good indicator and with good evidence otherwise we would certainly accept it.

So, we think the cocktail originated around the 1870s and 1880s with the first recorded instance in 1884, previously passed by word of mouth and culture. In this time frame we see better evidence that it was created at the Manhattan Club, a New York gentlemens’ club frequented by the political elite. The claim was made by the Manhattan Club’s founder, journalist, and chronicler Colonel Henry Watterson. We can accept this explanation if this fact wasn’t suspiciously absent from his published history of the Manhattan Club in 1915…seems like a noteworthy item to omit, though, he could have been exercising some degree of political prudence by casually leaving it out in the five years of escalating temperance toward Prohibition.

Finally, Jay told us about discovering another origin story published in the Baltimore Sun in 1908 claiming the Manhattan was born of the need for refreshment after a duel in the 1840s. For any others who stumble upon this story…we’re pretty sure that it is a complete fabrication. None of the names match up, including a state senator, for which there would definitely be a record. It seems like we came across a 19th century version of the Onion.

As a side note for those interested in Manhattan itself — the word Manhattan is derived from the Native American Lenape words manna-hata which means “island of many hills.” Manhattan was sold by its indigenous people for the equivalent of $1,050.

The details and personalities are discusses specifically in the show as well as Jay’s encounter with a false origin story that began with a duel.

The ingredients in the Manhattan are as follows:

  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz vermouth
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Maraschino cherry

Our usual hang-out for tasting the cocktails we discuss is The Brixton in Andersonville in Chicago where Michael Donnelly mixes the cocktails and brings his own perspective to the drinks.  I was joined by Rachel, Kevin, Nicole and Bethany, the usual suspects, on this tasting adventure…and we tasted everything.

Us newbies to the Manhattan initially thought the drink quite boozy, but then Nicole suggested we try some straight rye whiskey and we all recanted that perspective.  I have to admit, it tasted like what I expected of a classic cocktail with such a long pedigree, basic with no attempt to hide the alcohol, but rather enhance it.

Michael was good enough to create two other versions, the Vieux Carre (which we will review in more depth at a later time) and a perfect Manhattan, at Nicole’s request, whereupon she learned that she has the taste sensibilities of a 70 year old man.  A perfect Manhattan is one that includes equal parts of both sweet and dry vermouth.  Listen to the show to gather all of our impressions of the three drinks.



Transition music: Cephalopod by Kevin MacLeod
Closing Music: Manhattan Madness by Irving Berlin

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