Friday, September 5, 2008

Project Manhattan

Here's an entry by P, since it is about a drink I don't like . . . 

Not too long ago on my internet travels, I happened upon this Washington Post article about one of my very favorite adult beverages, the Manhattan. Aside from going over the basics of the cocktail, it included recipes for Manhattans made using Cynar, the bizarre Italian liqueur made partly from artichokes, and the terribly dramatic sounding Black Manhattan made with a similar Italian bitter. I forwarded this to our friend J, whose fondness for this drink probably exceeds mine (at least in his level of dogmatism about its ingredients), and he thought it might be prudent to arrange a tasting. L and I agreed, and thus Project Manhattan, brilliantly named by J, was born. (I figured this could be a good way to finally use up some of the family bottle of Cynar that seems to have been passed down through several generations already.) Through this endeavor, we learned a little about what makes a good cocktail great, and ultimately, a little about ourselves.The plan was to start with the old standby, a standard Manhattan made with Knob Creek bourbon, and work our way up to the more exotic variations. To avoid getting completely sloshed we made half-size versions of each version, so don't think we're total lushes. I contemplated bringing a bottle of Crown Royal along for further research, but I wisely decided against it, as I no doubt would have found myself victim of a thorough berating by J for suggesting we consider an "inferior blended whiskey" for the cocktail. For the record, I unashamedly enjoy Manhattans made with Crown Royal, and if J disagrees he can get his wife to start her own blog and guest-write on it.

Anyway, Manhattan #1: Knob Creek bourbon, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters. My take: a classic combo, and with good reason. The bourbon brings the body and the heat, the vermouth, just the right amount of sweetness, and the bitters temper the sweetness of both. Easy drinking and smooth. This was made with a 3:1 bourbon:vermouth ratio, which is a little sweet for my taste but still perfectly drinkable.

Manhattan #2: Jim Beam Rye, sweet vermouth, Angostura bi
tters. Here's where the whiskey makes a difference. The rye was lacking in the complexity and richness that made the bourbon Manhattan great. I'm sure better results could be achieved with a higher-end rye whiskey, but as a practical matter these are hard to come by when ordering out these days, so bourbon is a safe bet.

Manhattan #3 - the "Perfect" Manhattan: back to the Knob Creek, but this time with half sweet vermouth, half dry vermouth, and Angostura bitters. Wow. What a difference the dry vermouth made. "Perfect" is not the word that came to mind - more like "nasty and Martini-tasting". I like Martinis, but not in my Manhattans, and the dry vermouth just seemed totally out of place after the first two variations.

Manhattan #4: Knob Creek, sweet vermouth, but this time, Regan's Orange Bitters in place of the Angostura. Unfortunately the result, again, was nastiness. The orange bitters were just too sweet and orangey and threw the whole mix off balance. Perhaps if we had used a little less the results would have been more favorable.

And that was it. The night broke up before we made it to the mo
re exotic ones, but a few weeks before the event I did try a Crown Royal/Cynar variation on my own. If you're not used to the taste of Cynar, it may seem a little weird, but I knew what I was in for and I think it worked.

An interesting observation: the male tasters on the panel (J and I) w
ere in agreement that Manhattan #1 with the Knob Creek was superior to #2. Surprisingly, our female tasters (J's wife H and our friend A) preferred the rye Manhattan. Perhaps this is due to chance, or some genetic predispositions toward the fiery richness of bourbon on our part. Not so interesting is that it was pretty much unanimous that #3 and #4 were awful, though that didn't stop us from finishing them.

Did I mention there was food too? J got his hand on some exotic meats from D'Angelo Brothers on Ninth Street - buffalo steaks and an ostrich tenderloin. The buffalo was excellent, and the ostrich was very good too, though some found the bourbony marinade that J prepared for the bird a little overpowering. Great roasted potatoes too.

Overall, it was a fun and educational evening. For J and I at least, we confirmed what we knew all along, but sometimes you need to challenge your assumptions to realize how right you were in the first place. And by not using any of the Cynar, I have preserved my family's legacy for another generation. Cheers everyone!

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