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The hit television show "Mad Men" has sparked an interest in retro cocktails.
A classic Manhattan
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
A recent episode of the popular television drama “Mad Men” portrayed advertising executive Don Draper and an associate brainstorming ideas while polishing off a bottle of liquor in their Manhattan office. The associate then sat down at a meeting, made a statement and dropped his head to the table, obliterated. If Draper and his co-worker had been drinking cocktails instead of straight liquor, he might have had a more productive meeting. In fact, the show has triggered a revival of interest in retro cocktails such as the Manhattan.
Legend has it that the drink was invented in November 1874 at the Manhattan Club in New York City at a gala held in honor of Gov. Samuel Tilden, who was running for president. The event is said to have been sponsored by socialite Jennie Jerome, a woman of striking beauty who eventually became Lady Randolph Churchill, Sir Winston’s mother. The problem with this legend is that at the time of the festivity, Jerome was giving birth to little Winston at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England. Spirits expert David Wondrich says, “Contemporary newspaper accounts of the two Manhattan Club banquets held for Tilden’s election make no mention of Lady Jerome, nor indeed of any woman present — these were strictly stag affairs.”
Some credit a Broadway bartender with inventing the libation in the 1860s. The 1891 book “The Flowing Bowl” by William Schmidt provides a Manhattan recipe including absinthe and gum syrup, a popular sweetener of the day derived from gum Arabic. Early recipes called for rye whiskey, which was widely produced. When the Volstead Act outlawed alcohol in 1920, smuggled Canadian whiskey became the liquor of choice because of its availability.
Today the drink has a standard recipe containing bourbon or rye, bitters, sweet vermouth and a maraschino cherry. There are, however, many variations, and some purists contend that a maraschino cherry should not be allowed in the same room as a properly made Manhattan. Commercial maraschino cherries use Royal Ann cherries, which are bleached white and then pigmented with red dye and adulterated with sugar.
Local Roots restaurant in Roanoke’s Grandin Village makes a drink called a Cherry Rye that mimics a Manhattan. Old Overholt Rye whiskey is the backbone, supported by bitters, the orange liqueur Cointreau and Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. Luxardo is crafted from Croatian Marasca cherries, which are noted for their concentrated, almost black color and bitter dense pulp, making them ideal for liqueur. The drink is strong, sweet and rich with a tangy note in the background.
I recently enjoyed a different variation at downtown Roanoke restaurant Lucky. Called the Mezcal Manhattan, the drink contains rare Dolin French vermouth blanc, Sazerac orange bitters from New Orleans and the Mexican spirit Mezcal. The drink is finished with a twist of orange peel.
The skillful bartender stirred the drink deftly with ice in a cocktail shaker for a good long time before straining it into a short glass. The drink is strong and not excessively sweet with notes of cinnamon, spice, herbs and a bit of bitterness in the background. Co-owner Hunter Johnson told me he uses Mezcal because it has a pronounced cinnamon note, which is accentuated by the orange bitters and orange peel. Dolin is produced in the Savoy region of France using local wines and herbs and botanicals form the nearby Alpine meadows above Chambery. The flavors are light but complex and not as sweet as commercial vermouth. Johnson also adds a touch of Cochi Vermouth di Torino, an artisan Italian wine with notes of citrus, cocoa, spice and bitter herbs.
While Johnson did not sport a handlebar mustache or a white shirt with suspenders, the drink did make me feel a bit like I was back in a 1960s New York bar.
Gordon Kendall’s column on wine and spirits runs monthly in Extra.
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