Monday, February 12, 2018

☸️ The Deviant Manhattan: A Three-way

Ingredients and sampling glasses lined up for a tasteOne in an occasional series on liquors, cocktails, and boozy trivia.

Every now and then I like to re-trace the steps I took finding my favorite cocktails. Today, for no apparent reason, I played with three versions of the manhattan, my second-favorite rye whiskey cocktail.

The recipe for a decent manhattan is simple: two parts rye whiskey, one part sweet vermouth, and a couple dashes of cocktail bitters. The key to a sublime manhattan is, as always, the choice of ingredients.

Note I emphasized “rye.” Latter-day variants of this classic cocktail incorporate bourbon which, while supplying a satisfying whiskey barrel flavor, also spreads corn sweetness over the palate. Rye, on the other hand, imparts a spicy character and provides the perfect counterpoint to red vermouth’s sweetness. That, of course, is the aim of a well-made cocktail: balance. Eschew bourbon in this drink, and go for a top-shelf rye whiskey.

My rye of choice is Rittenhouse 100. If you can’t find that spirit, choose Bulleit rye. Nothing fancy, the green-labeled 95-proof stuff will do just fine.

I varied my vermouth choice to make this a three-way head-to-head comparison.

Rounding out the flavor profile is cocktail bitters. Leave the Angostura bottle in the cabinet and go for a well-regarded product. The Bitter Truth, Bittermens, Bittercube, and Fee Brothers all make fine cocktail bitters in a variety of flavors. My favorite flavors for experimentation are orange, black strap molasses, and chocolate mole. Bittercube’s Bolivar provides a lovely floral aroma to vodka and gin martinis. Who knew something added in such small quantity could make so big a difference in the final result?

For the baseline cocktail version, then, I’ve combined Rittenhouse rye whiskey with Vya, a lovely, mildly spicy vermouth, and added two dashes Bittermen’s orange bitters.

I first encountered Vya vermouth at Claire’s at the Depot restaurant in Warrenton, Virginia. I asked our server to inquire about the vermouth after my first sip, knowing the rye in use wasn’t imparting the mild nutmeg and even milder clove flavor found in this product.

My two variations substituted other products for Vya: first, Punt e Mes amaro (more on that amaro designation shortly), and second, Lillet rouge, the sweet, red version of Lillet blanc.

All three tasters were mixed with tablespoon and teaspoon measures. I was looking for a taste of each. The sum of the three provided six tablespoons of 100-proof liquor, or about three ounces; in-range for a standard cocktail.

One final ingredient: water. I didn’t stir or shake these samples, which would incorporate a portion of melt water into the drink. By mixing the ingredients directly in sampling gasses and moving them to the freezer for chilling, water didn’t enter the picture. A spring water boost of about 20% of the final volume brought each into final balance.

The drinks were ready for tasting after a twenty-minute chill in the freezer. First up, my baseline cocktail, one whose flavor my palate knew well.

All was in order, and my palate set.

Here’s a small, but significant tip for liquor and cocktail sampling: always take two tastes. The first sip “burns” the top off your taste buds, or so it seems, while the second imparts the liquor’s true flavor. The baseline sample serves as my first taste.

Next up was the same cocktail, but made with Punt e Mes. The difference between the baseline and this was stark—the Vya-imparted sweetness of the first was deeper in this one, with an added bitter dimension reminiscent of cherry pits macerated in neutral spirit.

Punt e Mes in a cocktail is akin to a combination of Cherry Heering dark cherry liqueur and a couple dashes of black strap molasses bitters.

Punt e Mes, which translates as in the middle, is aptly named. Its flavor, while sweet, imparts a bitterness that could substitute for cocktail bitters in this recipe. While labeled as an amaro, or Italian digestif, it works well as a vermouth substitute in the right recipes. Digestifs are traditional fortified wine-like beverages intended as digestive aids.

Punt e Mes’s sweetness countered by its enhanced bitterness worked to good effect in this drink. It’s worth another try in full figure, stirred with ice in a proper cocktail mixing glass. Another time.

Third in line was the Lillet rouge version. Aficionados of the Vesper cocktail, that 1950s “original James Bond Martini” spelled out in Fleming’s Casino Royale and later by Daniel Craig in the Bond film of the same name, know the dry, white version of this ingredient well. The sweet, red variant is distinct from the dry white in its color and sweetness.

Lillet is its own beast, not vermouth, but rather aperitif. Over ice the dry version might approach drinkability before a meal. The red, well …

An immediate, off-putting, harsh bitterness assaulted my palate. Ok, assaulted is hyperbolic; this cocktail isn’t anything I’d go for again, but the Lillet wasn’t offensive. It just didn’t work in this combination.

If I had to guess, I’d reduce the Lillet portion and add something sweet to make up for the loss of sweeter vermouths or aperitifs. Seems like work to incorporate an experimental ingredient. This one’s a reject.

I’ve used Punt e Mes in previous cocktails to good effect. Fans of Carpano Antica Formula, a sweeter-than-most vermouth of renown, would do well to try a 1:1 mix of the two in their next cocktail that calls for sweet vermouth. Punt e Mes adds a wee bitterness to the vanilla and cherry sweetness of Carpano.

So this taste-off was a success. I have a minor manhattan variant to play with in the coming weeks, and an ongoing puzzle as to how I’ll successfully use Lillet rouge.

I mentioned that the manhattan is my second-favorite rye whiskey cocktail. My favorite is a drink I created after an annual cocktail mix-off a year or so back, and debuted this past December to middling results: the silent night. The key to it is the chill: it absolutely must be served cold. I’ll write about it here in a future article, but in the mean time it’s documented on my other blog, Bazinga Journal. If you make one for yourself I’d love to hear what you think.

#cocktails #liquor #headToHead #tasteOff