Being the perennial Johnny-Come-Lately that I am, and resistant to anything that has the stink of a trend, I've kept away from Facebookery's "Throwback Thursday" with the sort of gusto politicians of the party in power resist electoral reform. I always say, if the masses love it, it's got to be a trick. Still, writing, especially blogging, loves a good meme and I do spend most of my time writing about the past. So my inner iconoclast and joiner got together and hammered out a deal. Today is Throwback Thursday, and the three of us have decided the thing most of us like to throw back is a good, stiff, drink. Yes, Thirsty Thursday, and I'm going to kick the whole thing off with a drink that's experiencing a bit of a resurgence, one that's been creeping around the cocktail lounge and bar long enough to have suffered all the slings and arrows fickle culture has to offer: the Manhattan.
Like many of the cocktails we'll be sampling, the true lineage of the Manhattan is uncertain. We know it emerged from the New York burrough for which it's named and that it was filling sherry glasses in trendier establishments there by the mid 1880s. The official history of the Manhattan Club lays claim the Manhattan's invention, going so far as attributing it to one Dr. Iain Marshall who supposedly concocted it for an 1874 reception thrown by Lady Randolph Churchill for presidential candidate Samuel Tilden. It's a nice story, but like most nice creation stories it probably isn't true.
For one thing, Lady Churchill was in England giving birth to her daughter at the time of the Tilden reception. Also, there are competing creation stories that place the Manhattan's birth ten years earlier in a Broadway bar that's name has been lost to history. In the end, all we can say for certain is the Manhattan is an aptly named child of NYC's guided age.
Order a Manhattan at your corner bar today and you're likely to get a mix of rye or Canadian whisky, sweet red vermouth, and orange or Angostura bitters with a maraschino cherry for looks. Though the recipe hasn't changed much over the centuries, it has evolved. In the early 1900's your cocktail would have contained American whiskey and been sweetened with a dash of gum syrup or maybe Curacao with a lemon peel added for garnish. The change from American to Canadian whiskey is probably linked to prohibition. Bootleg whiskey came across the border from Canada to fill the gap left by American distillers and the change stuck once America's dry heaves subsided. Back in the late 1800's absinthe might be substituted for the Curacao in a pinch, an ingredient that would put a serious side-spin on the cherry and orange theme modern imbibers have come to expect from their Manhattan.
How big is the Manhattan in American culture? Aside from introducing vermouth to the cocktail shaker, it also claimed the title of the 1928 film Manhattan Cocktail. No, it's not surprising you don't know that one. It was a movie that had the misfortune of being released in the period when the silent film was era was coming to an end and the talkies just getting started. It starred a couple un-notables, Nancy Carroll and Richard Arlen, Haven't heard of either of them? That's a shame, Arlen appeared in over 140 films seeing not only the coming of sound, but the coming of color to the movies as well. His first appearance was in 1921 and his last in 1977. Nancy Carroll appeared in over thirty feature films and went on to a stint in television that lasted until 1963. If you're looking for an appearance by the Manhattan that did better at the box office you need go no farther than the 1959 Marilyn Monroe comedy Some Like it Hot where Sugar and her co-stars were portrayed shaking cocktails in a hot water bottle due to prohibition. In the 2000's the popularity of Mad Men helped return swank and cocktail culture to the fore of the American conscience. Now the Manhattan has become a drink du jour at just about every watering hole from the swank to the simple and some hipster is probably substituting small-batch artisan hand crafted pomegranate bitters for Angostura. Whatever may come, the Manhattan survives, it always has and probably always will.