Cocktail Spotlight: The Black Manhattan

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Cocktail Spotlight: The Black Manhattan

Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.

At the end of the day, the classic Manhattan cocktail is all about balance and drinkability between its two primary elements: Whiskey and vermouth. Technically speaking, it’s a “strong cocktail” as most up drinks served in stemware, coupes or cocktail glasses tend to be, but the Manhattan is never meant to register as overtly strong, powerful or boozy, as you might find in the recently discussed Zombie cocktail. Rather, the combination of interplay between whiskey, vermouth–and just a little bit of bitters–and the gentle dilution of ice is meant to create a cocktail that drinks extremely easily for its proof. The flip side of the equation, though, is that you might find some people who just don’t find the Manhattan to be the most flavorful or engaging drink–not if they really want bold flavors. And that’s where the Black Manhattan comes in.

It’s been almost 20 years now since the creation of the Black Manhattan, and the drink has subsequently entered the hall of modern classics, being one of the go-to variations on the drink for bartenders all around the world. Reportedly first mixed up in 2005 at San Francisco’s Bourbon & Branch by bartender Todd Smith, the Black Manhattan makes an extremely simple substitution, but one that makes all the difference in the world. It simply opts to remove the sweet vermouth classically associated with the Manhattan, and substitute in a more powerfully flavorful amaro instead. In this case, Amaro Averna. The rest stays the same, with a bit more complexity in the bitters used, and a 2:1 Manattan cocktail ratio. That gives you the following recipe:

— 2 oz rye whiskey (100 proof)
— 1 oz Amaro Averna
— 1 dash aromatic bitters
— 1 dash orange bitters

Combine all ingredients in a cocktail tin/shaker with ice. Stir briskly, then strain into a cocktail coupe glass. Garnish with a maraschino cherry, preferably Luxardo.

Cocktail Queries: What Makes for a Great Manhattan?

It is such a simple twist on the classic Manhattan formula, and yet it’s a radically transformed drink. The Black Manhattan is notably heavier and fuller in texture and flavor. The Averna lends increased impressions of vanilla, citrus peel, red fruit and especially herbal bitterness, which takes the straightforwardly sweet Manhattan and turns it into a bittersweet drink with a lingering herbaceous character. This version somehow feels both sweeter and more bitter simultaneously, arguably engaging more flavor centers of the tongue. It doesn’t drink quite as effortlessly, though, thanks to the greater assertiveness of flavor and also the higher average ABV, given that the 29% ABV Averna is substantially stronger than your average vermouth. It feels significantly more hearty.

The drink even looks fantastic, with the Averna being the reason for the name–it gives the drink such a deep red, garnet color that it almost looks black. The Black Manhattan might be one of the more attractive-looking stirred drinks for this reason, in my opinion. And really, that’s all you need to know in order to try out this modern classic at home–as with classic Manhattans, you’ll want to use a good quality whiskey of a decent strength, with 100 proof being a good benchmark.

With that said, however … I must admit that I rarely make the standard Black Manhattan recipe at home for myself, despite the fact that I would list it as one of my favorite cocktails. Instead, I’ve gradually developed an even richer variation of the drink, one that splits the difference between the original Manhattan style and the Black Manhattan. And I’m going to share this version of the drink with you as well.

Here’s the thing: The Black Manhattan recipe, as written above, contributes fairly significant bitterness. That’s fine if you’re in an amaro sort of mood, and you want something cerebral to nurse. But I was interested in bringing things back toward balance a bit more, so I decided to include both sweet vermouth and Amaro Averna, making up a smaller proportion of the drink. The bitterness that the amaro contributes also opens the door for me to do something that I wouldn’t normally do on a regular Manhattan, which is to use bourbon rather than rye whiskey. I also favor a specific bitters for this, in the form of Old Forester’s Bohemian Bitters, which they describe as conveying spiced cherry, chocolate and tobacco. All in all, you end up with this twist on the Black Manhattan recipe.

— 1.5 oz bourbon whiskey (100 proof)
— .5 oz sweet vermouth
— .5 oz Amaro Averna
— 1 dash orange bitters
— 1 dash Old Forester Bohemian Bitters

This version of the Black Manhattan is a very rich drink, slightly decadent but never overtly sweet, having just enough herbal bitterness from the Averna to balance out its other elements. It’s very round and fruity, with bright red fruit jamminess combining with traces of caramel, vanilla and barrel char, supported by an undercurrent of dried herbs. It’s one of my very favorite cocktails to make at home, and now you can try it out as well. Shoot me a message on Twitter with your verdicts!

In the meantime, I hope that you find the motivation to mix yourself up a great cocktail tonight.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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