David Wondrich on the origins of the Manhattan; how to make the classic cocktail

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen
A Manhattan cocktail, made with Tennessee whiskey at the Bourbon Steak Nashville in the JW Marriott hotel in downtown, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.

To learn how to make a proper Manhattan, you might want to tap David Wondrich, who The New York Times calls "the closest thing to a living iPod of drink lore and recipes."

The James Beard Award-winning Wondrich, a former English professor who handled the drinks beat for Esquire from the late-'90s until 2016, has since written several books on craft cocktails. He'll release a nearly 900-page veritable encyclopedia of spirits in November. 

The New York-based writer also has opinions on how to make the drink that hails from his hometown. "I like it numerous ways, but the one I usually make is the standard two rye, one vermouth, two bitters Manhattan," he said. 

That formula is represented in the recipe below, though Wondrich prefers a citrus twist, not a cherry. As for the Perfect Manhattan with a capital P — meaning half dry vermouth, half sweet — Wondrich is not a fan.

"I don't think dry vermouth and whiskey make a great combination," he said. "I think they clash."

But don't let that stop you, he added. "I always say drink what you like. My opinions are for me."

Wondrich prefers 100-proof, or bonded, rye in his Manhattan. Failing that, he prefers 100-proof bourbon over 80-proof rye. "The proof is important," he said. "You have to get the concentration right to give it a little edge."

As for vermouth? Nothing fancy. "Any mass-marketed Italian vermouth is fine by me," he said. "Some people are incredibly picky. I'm really not. When I was writing for Esquire, I had to recommend things people could get in any liquor store."

The Manhattan was first documented in 1882 as a popular drink in the city for which it was named, but how it was made "wobbles," as Wondrich puts it. Some original versions incorporated gin, for example. 

"What basically made it new wasn't the whiskey or gin, but the fact that it took a regular cocktail and replaced half the booze with vermouth," Wondrich said. "It was a crazy idea; vermouth was pretty new in the U.S."

What was new then is now classic. Try your hand at making a Manhattan with the recipe below.

Read about whiskey in the South here.

How to make a classic Manhattan

Serves: 1 drink

Hands on time: 5 minutes

Total Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

2 ounces rye whiskey

1 ounce sweet vermouth

2 dashes Angostura bitters

Ice cubes

Maraschino cherries, for garnish

Instructions

In a mixing glass, combine the rye, vermouth and bitters. Fill with ice and stir with a cocktail spoon until chilled, about 30 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe or other cocktail glass and garnish with the cherries. Serve.