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It’s hard to find a better base for a Manhattan cocktail than a generous helping of hand-crafted Woodford Reserve bourbon, but a tour of New York’s top bars reveals more than one interpretation of this classic drink.
If you think you’ve already seen all that New York has to offer, then think again. Next time you cross the Atlantic to the Big Apple, why not put aside some time to find the best Manhattans in Manhattan? Woodford Reserve has already done the research for you, offering up a ready-made journey into the heart of New York, the birthplace of this classic cocktail, and a comprehensive tour of some of the leading bars that serve the drink today.
At the core of all great cocktails are ingredients of the highest quality, and in a Manhattan, the most important of these is whiskey. In the late 19th century, at the time of its inception, the Manhattan was based on what was most widely available – rye whiskey. Today, the Manhattan is usually made with bourbon, but it’s not surprising that Woodford Reserve – the premium small-batch bourbon from Kentucky – makes such a good version, as it has an unusually high rye content (18%), giving the Manhattan that characteristic spicy edge.
Woodford Reserve is the product of the oldest distillery (built in 1812) in operation in Kentucky. The whiskey itself is hand-crafted by a small team guided by one man – the master distiller Chris Morris. Using years of experience and knowledge, he selects just the finest whiskey to set aside for maturation, and it’s only when this special whiskey has reached its peak that it becomes Woodford Reserve.
While this award-winning whiskey is delicious on its own, served with ice or a splash of water, it’s also a cornerstone of the great American classic cocktails – namely, the Old Fashioned, the Mint Julep, the Whiskey Sour and the Bourbon Smash. But it’s in the Manhattan that Woodford Reserve really shines.
Traditionally, the Manhattan is made of two parts whiskey, one part red vermouth and a dash of bitters, stirred over ice, strained into a chilled glass and garnished with a maraschino cherry. However, its popularity has exposed it to considerable variation over the years and it remains one of the best drinks for bartenders to show off their unique flair and creativity. Some bars concentrate on more classic styles, while others like to push the boundaries and fashion much more contemporary concoctions for the 21st century. Let the battle of the bartenders commence…
Kicking off Woodford Reserve’s march on midtown Manhattan is Ava Lounge in the rooftop penthouse of the Dream Hotel. It’s the ultimate bar with bling and the well-heeled clientele are looking for modern twists on cocktails. The bartenders keep it simple (no bitters, which seems to be a midtown trend) and shake, rather than stir, the Manhattan. Then, in a nice touch, they serve it up to customers in a mini-shaker to give them the opportunity to give it another shake before pouring into a chilled martini glass.
The extravagance continues at the King Cole Bar at The St Regis Hotel. Taking its name from the famous Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966) mural, Old King Cole, which was bought by The St Regis Hotel in 1936 and now sits above the bar, this opulent space has hosted everyone from Salvador Dali to John Lennon.
It’s a celebration of old-school mixology here, with affluent golden-agers reminiscing about times gone by while enjoying a traditional Manhattan (although, again, it’s served without bitters) – no bells and whistles, just straight up and strong.
Your evening will really hit its stride with a visit to the infamous Bill’s Gay 90s in East 54th Street. Having originally opened its doors in the mid-1920s’ Prohibition era, Bill’s is one of New York’s original speakeasies. It prides itself on remaining unchanged, which means it’s all too easy to imagine yourself ringing the buzzer back in the day and whispering the secret password. Loved by locals and tourists alike, drinks are cheap and the welcome’s warm. But don’t be fooled by the old-school vibe – Bill’s may appear nostalgic but its bartenders are bang up to date. You won’t be disappointed with your Manhattan here.
Next up is The Campbell Apartment in Grand Central Terminal (pictured, right). The glorious, cavernous interior, featuring a decorative beamed ceiling and a vast leaded glass window is again reminiscent of the roaring 1920s’ era in New York and provides a fitting backdrop to sip another beautifully prepared Manhattan. The cocktails here are served in a classic style, but the bartenders will happily knock up a variation if desired.
Having ticked off the cream of ‘classic’ New York, it’s time to hang with the hipsters and head over to the newer generation of cocktail lounges in the uber-cool Lower East side.
First stop: Schiller’s Liquor Store. Positioned as a casual neighbourhood restaurant and bar, it’s loved by the locals as well as the trendies. The cocktail list is short but sweet and the bartenders are open to requests. The house Manhattan is described as a ‘Jerry Thomas classic recipe’ (rye whiskey, Angostura Bitters and Grand Marnier) – Thomas being a very influential 19th-century American bartender, whose name intentionally evokes an atmosphere of pre-Prohibition merriment. We asked for ours with Woodford Reserve as opposed to rye and loved the way that the orange flavours of Grand Marnier worked with the vanilla notes of Woodford Reserve, a truly exceptional Manhattan.
The night continues at the curiously named Death & Company – a bar that prides itself on ‘inclusivity’ (anyone can come in, as long as they know how to behave!) and the drinks list reads like a labour of love to the cocktail trends of the Prohibition era. Co-owner Ravi DeRossi is an established bar impresario, with his French wine-focused Bourgeois Pig (among others) also cutting a dash on the New York sidewalks. Many of the cocktails are stirred 40-50 times before crossing the bar-top, but they’re worth the wait. And a USP of the Manhattan is that it’s served in a six-ounce (177ml) glass with the remainder stored in a chilled carafe for the customer to pour at their leisure.
The penultimate bar on the Woodford Reserve tour is one of New York’s most famous speakeasies: PDT (‘Please Don’t Tell’ to those of you not in the know).
The bar is an homage to the craft of the cocktail, hidden within Crif Dogs hot-dog store and accessed via a phone booth with a secret door – all very New York. Classic cocktail recipes are an influence here, but it’s the innovative oddities that are the star of the show – ever tried an old fashioned flavoured with bacon? But no concoction seems too strange once you’ve got to grips with the idea of entering a bar through a phone booth in a hot dog joint.
When tasked with making a Manhattan, the waitress asked us to specify how we’d like it, and following the instructions – ‘make it sweet, but not too sweet and please don’t be shy with the bitters’ – we were presented with a cocktail that wouldn’t look out of place in heaven! Definitely one of the best Manhattans of the trip.
Last but far from least is Employees Only. Considered one of the best bars on the planet (it won World’s Best Cocktail Bar in the 2011 Tales of the Cocktail 5th Annual Spirited Awards) but, as yet, relatively undiscovered by tourists. The owners are all ex-bartenders so they know their stuff. Manhattans are kept simple and classic but the bartenders have any number of variations on standby. It’s a phenomenally busy space but each and every customer is treated with care – that’s the secret.
And with that, Woodford Reserve’s Manhattans in Manhattan tour comes to an end, and the journey is complete. But if New York seems too far away, all you need is a bottle of Woodford Reserve and you can concoct your very own version of the perfect Manhattan at home.
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