The Fine Art of the Manhattan

Guest blog post #2 from author Dustin Cann @dustincann

I’m a big fan of wine, I really am.  I love the way it can be so complex, yet so simple.  I love the way it smells and the way it can make great food even better.  But when I’m on the road, there’s absolutely nothing that centers me after a long day better than a well-made Manhattan.  See, I spend a great deal of my time bouncing between my home in Memphis and client sites in cities like San Francisco, DC, Detroit, as far away as India.  And in the world of a road warrior, you have to accept a certain degree of mediocrity.  Yes, my status with airlines, car rental companies, and hotels means I get upgraded more often than not.  Yeah, I get to hit restaurants and bars that would be a bit pricey for me to frequent on my own dime.  But I spend a lot of time on planes, breathing re-circulated air and drinking Skyy+Coke Zeroes with filthy ice next to some schmuck who thinks I’d rather talk about his sailboat than just close my eyes and rest only to spend my days navigating client politics and compromising the ideal for the realistic.  Any more insight and we’re running the risk of therapy, and my therapist wouldn’t appreciate that. Back to that Manhattan. 

A properly made Manhattan is apparently a tough thing to accomplish.  It’s the balls-out quality of one of these beauties that often makes me appreciate them even more than the finest of wines.  In recent years, bartenders all over the world seem to have either forgotten how to make them right, or become timid in a world where vodka is the preferred cocktail base and sweet beats bitter. 

The process itself is rather simple.  Start with a chilled martini glass.  A tumbler or a highball won’t encourage the right circulation or allow it to open up right.  So you splash a bit of sweet red vermouth in your glass and spin it around a few times.  Now dump it out.  That’s right, dump it out.  I’m indulgent like that.  I like the RUMOUR of vermouth, not vermouth itself.  Next, add a dash of bitters, preferably Angostura.  This is the part that a lot of modern bartenders are afraid of.  “Bitter is bad, right?”  Wrong.  Bitter is character.  Bitter is tangible.  Bitter is the magic.  Skimp on this, and you’ve just got some sweet whiskey.  A Manhattan you do not have.  So, bitters to about the 1/6th mark.  We’re doing this by feel, not by measure.  

Now for the whiskey.  Rye whiskey.  Not bourbon, please.  I’m not snobby here, so Jim Beam is fine.  I’ll take finer, but in a Manhattan, I’d prefer Jim Beam to a Kentucky bourbon or *gasp* scotch.  New Yorkers had access to rye whiskey when this drink was born, and that’s the way I like it.  I want it slightly cool, but not cold.  Add your whiskey to your glass that’s already flirted with vermouth and felt a bit of bitterness.  Fill it to just over the ¾ mark.  Any more and you’re being greedy (and you’ll probably commit the sin of spillage), any less and I feel ripped off.

Now add two little ice cubes, one if it’s large, and stir.  Gently. We’re not tumbling this sucker, lads and lasses.  We’re being soft.  You don’t want to bruise the spirits, just to mix them and cool it down a bit.  Pull out the ice cube(s) with a slotted spoon and add a lemon twist.  Prepare to be impressed.

A few common misconceptions (some may call them preferences, but my way is the right way, I assure you):  

  1. Some bartenders make this in a mixing glass and strain into your martini glass.  But a gentle mix in the glass is sufficient and clean and requires a level of class and patience not found in the mixing glass.  Remember, I’m talking about the perfect Manhattan, the one that lets me clear my head and simply appreciate it.  So make it in the glass, and take your time.  It’s sexier that way.
  2. Traditional Manhattans are garnished with cherries, not lemon twists.  Okay, true.  But if you walk into the average bar, a cherry in your Manhattan is all but guaranteed to bring with it a heavy vermouth hand and a light bitters hand.  A bartender who gives you a twist knows how to balance properly.  Or they’re out of cherries, which is a different story altogether.
  3. There are theories that a lime rim is okay.  It is not.  Not at all.

Manhattans aren’t for everyone.  They’re not meant to be a fast drink, so take your time to enjoy them.  And a lot of barkeeps don’t get them right.  But there’s nothing more opposite of dry dirty air and a bad airline cocktail.  And there’s no glass of wine that can make me appreciate an artistic bartender or a timeless recipe the same way.

About the Author

Dustin Cann is a traveling business consultant (39 trips in the 52 weeks of 2009) who loves his work, but would rather be a rock star.  He’s a foodie and an appreciator of both haute cuisine and pub food.  When he’s home, he plays around in recording studios and relaxes on the lake with a blind pug called Honey.  He lives in Memphis, Tennessee with his partner of eight years and almost surely needs to drink fewer Manhattans.


Owner of Nectar Tasting Room in Spokane, WA. (@nectarwine) Publisher of Spokane Wine Magazine (@spowinemag), author, speaker, consultant and internet marketer with Nectar Media (@nectarmedia)

15 comments on “The Fine Art of the Manhattan

  1. Joshua S Sweeney

    You know, I have never had a Manhattan before. I’m anxious to give one a try now. As long as it’s done right, of course.

    “There are theories that a lime rim is okay. It is not. Not at all.”

    And I’ll take that advice to heart.

    1. drinknectar

      Thanks for the comment. Dustin’s actually an old friend whom I haven’t seen in years. We used to play in a band together. I would trust him on his Manhattan recommendations.


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  3. Brian

    Your recipe sounds KILLER, I’m so making one of these tonight. But seriously, I can appreciate that cocktails don’t always need the top shelfy-shelf booze, but what are some other Rye whiskies that you would recommend? I love my bourbon, I’m starting to appreciate the nuances of scotch, I don’t know jack about Rye.

    See Josh, I do read better after 2 cups of coffee, at least I didn’t say, wow your really channeling your bartender today!

    Cheers mate, love the guest bloggers!

    1. drinknectar

      Brian – I’m glad you had your coffee today.

      Dustin, can you answer Brian’s question “but what are some other Rye whiskies that you would recommend? I love my bourbon, I’m starting to appreciate the nuances of scotch, I don’t know jack about Rye”


  4. Dustin

    Joshua S – you simply must remedy this immediately! In fact, where are you? I’ll come mix one up for ya right now!

    Josh W – Thanks for having me, sir. It was a pleasure. Looking forward to being your periodic “non-wine” guy!

    1. drinknectar

      Joshua S is in Virginia I think (not sure where)

      Dustin – Awesome to hear from you! Be safe in your travels and keep playing that guitar.

  5. Michael

    Your eloquence & poetic words regarding the humble Manhattan makes me realize that it is a far superior & underrated cocktail. I prefer mine garnished with bacon.

    1. drinknectar

      Bacon? I’ll have to defer to the writer for that one. Bacon goes with anything IMO. Dustin, ever heard of a Manhattan garnished with bacon?

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  7. Dustin

    I’ve heard of this, yes. Michael is teasing me, as he knows well that I’m currently hunting desperately for just such a cocktail in San Francisco! He’s my go to vino aficionado in Memphis. (, in the spirit of community building!)

    Michael – glad you dropped by. You’ll love Josh’s blog!

  8. Michael

    speaking of rye

    I love love Sazerac rye

  9. Dustin

    Hi Brian!

    Sorry for the late response, spent a lot of the last few days in the air!

    I like rye whiskeys in mixed drinks. They’ve got bold spicy and fruity characteristics that hold up to the mix a little betteer than most scotches and bourbons (which I prefer neat of with a drop or two of water to open them up).

    Here’s a pretty good list of brands to experiment with:

    I recommend buying a few of those adorable little sample bottles to see what you like. Have fun!

    Michael – word.

    1. drinknectar

      Dustin, thanks for coming back by and providing additional details for Brian!

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