STORY BY DAVID LANSING
My father was more James Gandolfini than Daniel Craig, more John Goodman than Ryan Gosling. Sort of the blue-collar Frank Sinatra, I guess you’d say, a man’s man who loved a T-bone steak with a baked potato, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, and playing ping-pong on Sunday afternoons while drinking beer with our neighbors. He admired Steve McQueen’s quiet stoicism, never owned a suit, and during the holidays always brought home a free turkey he’d won in his bowling league. Always.
I’ll tell you a story: When I was a kid, my dad would take me with him to Kona Lanes during the holidays, when school was out, where I’d get paid a buck plus all the Cokes I could drink for sitting in a hard plastic chair and keeping score for my father’s team. All these guys, most of whom were telephone linemen like my dad, would suck down beers all night, but not my father. He’d order a Manhattan from the speaker on the scoring desk, and a cocktail waitress would make a big deal delivering it to him in a plastic cup on the rocks.
At this point my father would pull out this ridiculous frosted cocktail shaker with drink recipes on it from his shoe bag and, after dumping the contents of the cup into it, strain it into a ribbed martini glass, which he also kept in his shoe bag. Then he’d pull out an old jam jar full of brandied cherries he made himself and plop one of the glistening scarlet bombs in his martini glass and another in my Coke. He called my drink a virgin Manhattan—“Which, as you’ll discover, is a very rare thing”—chuckling as he clinked his martini glass to my cherry Coke. This is the part that always embarrassed me: the clinking of the glasses, the lame joke. This is the part I admired: the cocktail waitress treating him as a bon vivant and me like his young prince. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his holiday Manhattan became a watermark stamped across every other memory I have of my father.
But I came of drinking age in a time of Harvey Wallbangers, tequila sunrises, and California wines hawked by Orson Welles. The first time I had a real Manhattan was at the reception at our house after my father’s funeral three days before Christmas in 1993. I pulled down his dusty martini shaker and went through the cabinet above the fridge, where he always kept his booze, pulling out a half-full bottle of Old Forester, his bourbon of choice, and some vermouth and, in his honor, made myself a very, very strong Manhattan. I liked it immensely. I liked the way the rosy hue of sweet vermouth deepened the amber color of the whiskey. I liked its smoky sweetness, the way just the slightest sip filled my mouth with lubricious lushness. Most of all I liked the comforting nature of the drink at a time when I felt inconsolable.
Here’s what I believe: The Manhattan is the Cary Grant of cocktails. The most charming, the most elegant, the simplest but most festive libation you can order. Gary Regan, who wrote The Bartender’s Bible, says the Manhattan is “the drink that changed the face of cocktails.” It’s the grandfather of the martini, pre-dating it, and the sine qua non of all French-Italian cocktails. It’s also the sexiest. A woman who orders a Manhattan up? I’m in love.
There’s no exact record of who created the first Manhattan, but the most popular story revolves around a holiday party hosted by Jennie Churchill, Winston’s mum, for her father’s good friend, Samuel James Tilden, the governor of New York, at the Manhattan Club in 1874. Legend has it that Churchill asked the bartender to come up with something particularly festive for the evening, and in a New York minute, the Manhattan was born. Not the Manhattan my father drank, of course, since in those days the whiskey of choice was rye, and the maraschino cherry had yet to come along.
In fact, the Manhattan has gone through a number of permutations over the decades—from rye, originally, to Canadian whisky during Prohibition, to my father’s preference, bourbon, in the 60s. And there’s always been friendly arguments over the type of vermouth to use—and just how much. The story goes that the original Jennie Churchill Manhattan was made with equal amounts of both dry and sweet vermouths, and this is still called a Perfect Manhattan, though in my mind there’s nothing perfect about it.
My father made his with Italian vermouth, as called for on the recipe of his goofy 60s cocktail shaker. Back then, people referred to dry vermouth as “French” and sweet vermouth as “Italian” because that’s where they came from. These days there are all sorts of vermouths out there, including sweet whites, so you have to be more specific (and the very popular-at-the-moment Black Manhattan replaces vermouth altogether with amaro, a bitter Italian liqueur).
Now about the whiskey. Hardly anyone makes a rye Manhattan these days, largely because hardly anyone makes rye whiskey (which, by law, needs to be made with at least 51 percent rye grains). And if you order a Manhattan on the East Coast and don’t specify the liquor, most bartenders will use a Canadian whisky—usually Canadian Club—which they will tell you is a rye whiskey. Which is nonsense. Almost all Canadian whiskies are blends, which means they come from a number of different producers and barrels (Crown Royal, for instance, uses up to 50 different whiskies to create its blend). Using a blended Canadian whisky to make a Manhattan, to me, is like using surimi to make a crab cocktail. Please don’t do it. Order a straight bourbon.
When my father died, I inherited a couple of things that I still have almost 30 years later: his 60s cocktail shaker and his recipe for what truly is the perfect Manhattan. First of all, use orange bitters instead of the more popular Angostura. The bitter orange shines a spotlight on the bourbon and cuts the sweetness of the vermouth. Shake exactly three drops in a martini glass, swirl it around, and dump out any excess that doesn’t cling to the glass. In a cocktail shaker half-filled with crushed ice, add two shots of bourbon and one shot of sweet vermouth (my dad used Martini & Rossi, but I prefer Dolin, which isn’t as cloying). Swirl the mixture around in your martini shaker but don’t bruise it; you don’t want a cloudy Manhattan. Strain into a martini glass and add a maraschino cherry—or, like my father, a brandied cherry you’ve made yourself by drowning fresh cherries in a jar of brandy.
So a few days after Christmas, I’ll pull down my father’s Mad Men martini shaker from the top shelf in my dining room. I’ll dump in a couple of ounces of Old Forester straight bourbon, an ounce of sweet vermouth, and lightly swirl my father’s concoction. Then I’ll take that first bracing sip, smile, and quietly murmur a toast—to my father, a blue-collar stiff who taught me how to make the most sophisticated holiday cocktail ever.
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